Thursday, August 07, 2008

Design for Emotion and Flow

Information as psychic energy ...

"We create software and websites to display and represent information to people. That information could be anything; a company’s product list, pictures of your vacation, or an instant message from a friend. At this moment, there’s more information available to you than at any other time in history.

All this information has a lot of positive effects, but it also creates challenges. “What information consumes is rather obvious; it consumes the attention of its recipients … a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention” (Simon 1971). When attention becomes a scarce resource, it’s important to invest it wisely. Information architects and designers play a critical role in ensuring the products they design provide users’ with a return on their investment of attention.

The psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (1990) has described focused attention as “psychic energy”. Like energy in the traditional sense, no work can be done without it, and through work that energy is consumed. Most of us have experienced a mental/emotional state where all of our attention (or energy) is totally focused on an activity. Csikszentmihalyi (1990) named this state “flow,” based on how participants in his studies described the experience.

In this state of consciousness, people often experience intense concentration and feelings of enjoyment, coupled with peak performance. Hours pass by in what seems like minutes. We tend to enter these states in environments with few interruptions, where our attention becomes focused by a challenge that we’re confident we can handle with our existing skills. Feedback is instantaneous, so we can always judge how close we are to accomplishing our task and reaching our goal. The importance of the task influences our level of motivation and perceptions of how difficult the task will be.

Attention and Flow

The elements associated with the flow state can be classified into the three areas; 1. Causes of Flow 2. Characteristics of Flow 3. Consequences of Flow (Novak, Hoffman and Yung, 1999).

1. Causes of Flow

* A clear goal
* Immediate feedback on the success of attempts to reach that goal
* A challenge you’re confident you have the skills to handle

2. Characteristics of Flow

* Total concentration and focused attention
* A sense of control over interactions
* Openness to new things
* Increased exploratory behavior
* Increased learning
* Positive feelings

3. Consequences of Flow

* Loss of consciousness of self
* Distortions in the perception of time
* Activity is perceived as intrinsically rewarding

As designers, we focus on the elements that precede or cause flow. Users visit sites with pre-existing goals (e.g., finding information about a product). These goals evolve over time as users complete tasks and their attention is drawn to other information. The main elements designers can control are:

* Providing immediate feedback
* Balancing the perception of challenge against users’ skills

Designing for Flow

You don’t need to take a course or learn a new software package to design for flow. In fact, you’re probably already doing it. Begin by considering the desired outcome of every interaction and then removing everything that distracts the user from accomplishing that outcome."    (Continued via Boxes and Arrows, Trevor van Gorp)    [Usability Resources]

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