Designing for Peace of Mind: Almost Getting to Flow

What do Twitter and the game Angry Birds have in common? Their users are intrinsically motivated to use them. This motivation is important for both apps and sites from a revenue generation perspective: the frequency and duration of use of Twitter supports its advertising revenue, and the engagement of Angry Birds players leads to advertisement revenue and higher conversion of in-app purchases. Even content-oriented apps and sites are concerned with customer engagement in order to generate an experience that draws return users.

The use of Twitter and Angry Birds promotes what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls “optimal experience,” or “flow”. He describes flow as “being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost.”

Activities as varied as playing music, rock climbing, and scientific investigation have been described in this way. While this state of mind is extremely personal, it is facilitated by participation in activities that have several characteristics:

  • A clear goal
  • Sufficient skill and confidence to complete a task that leads to the goal
  • Ability to concentrate in the moment
  • Immediate feedback
  • Control over your actions

In this state we lose a sense of time and a sense of self-consciousness. We also feel happier, more motivated, and more productive.

Promoting flow is a great goal for the UX designer, and the right design can support this zen-like state for many activities. However, a lot of applications are not used long enough to promote flow, or are used in distracting environments such as a call center or a warehouse, in which designing an application for flow would prove difficult. A better place to begin is with the user’s peace of mind, or a sense of confidence, assurance, and absence of frustration in using the application to achieve his or her goal. When we can’t design for flow, we can use the following flow design principles to create a design that promotes peace of mind for the user, ultimately leading to an increase in productivity and system usage:

  1. Things should work as expected
  2. The user should always know how things are going
  3. Interaction should be distraction-free

Things Should Work as Expected

Users bring expectations to every experience. When these expectations are met with elegance, users respond with delight. When something doesn’t work as expected, they get distracted and may become anxious or frustrated. Distraction makes users lose focus on their current task and reduces their peace of mind. As designers working to create an optimal experience, we should try to avoid distracting our users.

It is surprising how often applications disregard even the most basic expectations regarding feedback. Jakob Nielsen spelled out some of these expectations more than twenty years ago: an application should respond within one second to avoid interrupting a user’s flow of thought; users will become distracted and begin to perform other tasks if an application’s response time exceeds ten seconds. Others have added to this, suggesting that users expect to be able to complete sub-tasks in less than a minute and an entire task in less than ten minutes.

The “busy” indicator in web applications is a good example of timely feedback that reassures users and facilitates peace of mind in using the application. This indicator should be used for any interaction that will take longer than one second to complete.

Another set of expectations that people have is dependent on the context of the application in use. Web standards have come a long way in supporting usage context at a high level, and conventions such as the placement of login and logout links in the upper right corner meet expectations also. However, simply following standards and conventions does not necessarily promote users’ peace of mind. We have to understand the overall context and support specific contextual expectations.

The LinkedIn iOS app has a view that lists the people who have recently visited your profile (see Figure 1). There is a button on the far right of some of the people on the list. Selecting the button sends an invitation to connect to those the user is not already connected to. When the button is tapped, there is no confirmation pop-up. It is a smooth, distraction-free experience. But there is also no way to revoke the invitation. Because I’m not a big fan of inviting strangers to my LinkedIn list, I expect that there would be a way to undo my mistake. Since there isn’t, my confidence in using the app diminishes, and I am less likely to use it.

LinkedIn mobile app screenshot

Figure 1. Auto-invite in LinkedIn’s iOS mobile app.

There are a few questions a designer can ask to ensure that an application meets its users’ expectations:

  • Does the app support natural human expectations of feedback?
  • What feedback will promote a user’s peace of mind?
  • What are the contextual expectations users’ bring to the app?
  • How can the app promote confidence in this context?

The User Should Always Know How Things Are Going

Another characteristic of flow is the understanding of the current goal and how we are progressing toward it. An indication of progress promotes confidence in the use of an application, which also supports a user’s peace of mind.

Navigation in software applications has been a topic of investigation for many years. Breadcrumbs, clear labels, and proper navigational elements all contribute to a solid information architecture and positive user experience. However, simply following all of these best practices may not promote confidence in the use of an application, or help the user focus on the task at hand.

Consider the form used to list an item for sale on eBay (see Figure 2). It’s a one-page form which works well in some applications. There are breadcrumbs at the top of the page and navigation elements are clearly labeled. Unfortunately, the form is long and users can lose sight of where they are in the listing process. By simply numbering the form element groups and indicating the total number of steps (for example, “2 of 4”), users would know where they are and how much further to go.

Ebay item listing screenshot

Figure 2. The item listing form on eBay.

Contrast this with the wizard used to purchase a plane ticket on Delta.com (see Figure 3). The application clearly spells out that there are five steps in the process. There is an indicator at the top of the page that provides feedback to reassure the user of their progress toward the goal of booking a flight. This design pattern has been around for years. It may not be appropriate for every design, but the navigational cues that it provides help users know where they are in the process.

Delta flight booking screenshot

Figure 3. The flight booking wizard on the Delta website.

There are three questions a designer can ask to ensure that users know how things are going when they use an application:

  • What are the users’ goals and what tasks support these goals?
  • Can users always know how things are going and what to do next?
  • What indicators will promote the users’ peace of mind?

Interaction Should Be Distraction-Free

Nothing interrupts flow more than distractions. When you are focused on completing a task and the phone rings, isn’t there something inside of you that is perturbed? Web and mobile applications can interrupt flow in the same way with unexpected distractions.

Distractions come in many forms. Imagine using Facebook or Twitter without the infinite scroll feature. Imagine that after every ten updates you had to hit a “Next Page” link to see more. I doubt you would enjoy the experience as much. The free flow of updates is one aspect of the interface that draws people in and keeps them connected for a period of time.

A continued source of distraction is the confirmation pop-up. When a user purposely hits a button, the expectation is that it just works. A confirmation pop-up distracts from the flow of the experience. The RSS aggregator Feedly displays a confirmation pop-up when the “Mark As Read” button is clicked (see Figure 4). An undo feature would be better in this case; it would facilitate the flow of the interaction and help the user feel comfortable trying out new features without the fear of failure.

Pop up confirmation screenshot

Figure 4. A confirmation pop-up on Feedly.

Another potential distraction is a request for uncommon information. Some applications may require the user to enter information that is not readily available, such as an account number or social security number. For example, an electric company had a change of address form that requested the user’s account number. Site usage analytics showed a substantial loss of conversion when users were asked for this information. When the company added a list of required information at the top of the form to give users the opportunity to gather everything (see Figure 5), the conversion rate increased by over 300 percent.

List shows what a user needs to have to sign up for service

Figure 5. Example of a list of information the user will need before beginning a long task.

There are a few questions a designer can ask to ensure that the user interaction is distraction-free:

  • Are there any interactions that prevent users from having a clear path toward completing their goal?
  • What is the cost of failure when users accidentally activate a feature? Will they want to undo it?
  • Does the application ask for information that users may not have readily available? Would the lack of this information interrupt the flow of their experience?

Conclusion

An application that promotes the concept of flow is a great goal. However, one must spend at least fifteen minutes performing an activity to get into a state of flow, and the best experiences for many applications are completed in ten minutes or less. Therefore, specifically promoting flow may be impossible.

By applying a few of the flow principles, however, we can increase peace of mind and engagement. For work process products, peace of mind can optimize workflow and increase throughput. When consumer applications improve engagement, people are more apt to use them longer, which leads to an increase in revenue. While your product may not be the next Twitter or Angry Birds, incorporating a few of the flow principles in the design will lead to a positive experience.

Keefer, R. (2014). Designing for Peace of Mind: Almost Getting to Flow. User Experience Magazine, 14(2).
Retrieved from http://www.uxpamagazine.org/designing-for-peace-of-mind/

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