Flow is one of those concepts that we all like to talk about but is much harder to achieve in practice. At its essence, flow is that feeling you get when you are “in the zone.” You are fully immersed in an activity, totally focused, high levels of challenge are balanced with high levels of skill so you get a great feeling of accomplishment. It increases your ability to persist through difficulty.
The potential for flow to improve user performance makes it a frequent subject of study. Most recently, I read this piece from the HFES Annual Meeting last month. A team of researchers from Embry-Riddle investigated the relationship between novices and experts in achieving flow. The question is quite fundamental. We know that to experience flow, the user has to be working at his or her highest level of ability. Can novices experience that? Is flow possible if a novice’s highest level of ability is not very much different from her lowest level? Will she get frustrated at a level of challenge that matches her relatively high level of challenge because she isn’t familiar enough with the system? In this study, novices did not achieve flow at either the high or low level of task difficulty. But with only two levels tested, it is hard to reach any clear conclusion.
Another question that comes up is how to match the level of challenge to a user who is climbing up the learning curve. To maintain task difficulty at the highest level that the user is capable of, the design would need to constantly monitor and model the user’s ability and increase task difficulty accordingly. This is easier said than done. Two studies from 2005 investigated this, but again with unclear conclusions. It gets even harder because of the bumpy process through which we really learn – the term learning “curve” is quite misleading.
A third question is whether task difficulty should be held constant with the user’s ability or whether a dynamic adjustment is better. Can a user work steadily at their highest skill level or is flow more reliably achieved if difficulty goes up and down to give the user some variety, some really tough tasks, some easier tasks that can be used to catch one’s breath but still be engaged with the system, and so on. Andrzej Marczewski recently opined on this question, but has only anecdotal evidence for the idea.
One final question I will leave you with is whether there are individual differences in the “need for flow” or perhaps “need for challenge.” Do some users experience flow at the very tip top of their skill level while others experience flow at a lower level? This is different from preference. Where does the flow state really kick in? I have seen no data on this.
Do you design for flow? Do you feel flow in any of the activities you engage in yourself? Perhaps sports? Or video gaming? Since we don’t have much reliable data on these questions, I would be very interested in your thoughts.
Image Credit: Postmodemgrrrl