What was the last thing you did that totally engaged your mind and made you forget about everything else?

Watching a film maybe? Or reading a book? Playing Tennis? Eating Filet Mignon?

Filling in a survey? Tweaking your social networking privacy settings?

Maybe like me, you’re glued to your computer for hours each night doing “stuff” except you’re not really sure what that stuff is. Just that it takes up all your time and attention, and is very, very important. Sadly you are also under Sheila’s spell.

But you were probably quite happy to be in such a state of engagement, and to some extent were probably bummed when it ended, right? When you were no longer in the zone…

And User Experience Design is all about designing to help engage users in their activities.

Why is that important?

Well, a chap called Mihaly Csikszentimihalyi (only 13/26 in case you were wondering) carried out some research on how great athletes, chess grandmasters, programmers, surgeons or painters felt when they were in the zone performing at the peak of their abilities. Then he wrote a book on his findings called Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience.

As Professor Csikszentimihalyi summarises, there are eight commonly reported traits that naturally result from being in flow:

  1. Clarity: The goal of the activity is clear. Not conflicting. Not confusing. And not just the overall goal. At every stage you know what to do next.
  2. Feedback: Feedback is immediate. At every step, you are given feedback allowing you to make your next move. Otherwise you’ll get bored, distracted and won’t be alert.
  3. Challenge: The challenge of the activity matches your skill level: not so easy that you get bored, and not so difficult that you get overwhelmed.
  4. Focus: Your attention is concentrated and you are focussed on what you’re doing. Generally, our brains are constantly switching between doing something and monitoring the result. But when in flow, these two merge into one beam.
  5. Distractions: You’re not distracted by everyday problems or frustrations. You’re so engaged in what you’re doing that you can’t afford to think about something else. So a side effect of flow is how it can be a form of escaping reality.
  6. Control: You’re in control. But not totally… if it was too easy you’d get bored or complacent. You’re on an edge but still in control.
  7. Confidence: You lose self consciousness. You stop worrying about what others think because you don’t have this luxury. You’re doing something more important. As a result, losing self consciousness while in flow can mean you appear more confident than you normally might.
  8. Timing: Your sense of time gets transformed in some way. You might spend what felt like a few minutes doing something only to discover you were doing it for hours. The time just flew by. Or the opposite might happen and everything slows down and you can see the ball actually bounce off the racket strings like Neo would if he played tennis.
Neo serving.

But Professor Csikszentimihalyi also talks about people having a certain type of “autotelic” personality… people who are naturally able to keep themselves in a state of flow by trying to apply the feeling of being in flow even to their everyday tasks and chores (alas, a third of our waking lives are spent on such maintenance activities as housework, brushing teeth, or twitter).

So flow is something we should aim for when carrying out any activity, especially now that we recognise the characteristics of flow. In a way, flow is the most we can expect from ourselves.

And if you run a business, imagine designing the Holy Grail of all systems – a system that engages and motivates your employees to work harder, faster and with more enjoyment. Almost as if they were trying to beat their hi-scores on a computer game all day…