Flow, not Flow

Currents at work

I am an iWhore. I own a MacBook Pro, an iPad, an iPhone and an Apple TV (not to mention the 2nd MacBook Pro I use for work); device switching is a shockingly frequent part of my daily routine. I’ll check Facebook on all of them within a 10-minute span is there’s lively banter going on. So you can imagine my frustration when a status update I read on one device continues to blink at me on every other device, requiring me to clear it again. And again.

Here’s another fun scenario:

  1. I search for something in the App Store.
  2. Later, I click on a link to another app in the App Store.
  3. The link fails, because that pesky search term from before is somehow allowed to override the link.

(No, this is not user error. It has happened to me many times since the recent App Store redesign.)

So what do both of these sad stories have in common? They’re failures in flow.

Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience” is an oft-referenced book by Mihaly Csiksentmihalyi, in which the author 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.”

You know what that is? Runner’s high, also known as ‘one of the best feelings in the universe for people who don’t do smack’. That kind of flow, however, is not what I’m talking about. I’m referencing something far less rarified but sometimes just as elusive, which is the simple act of getting from Point A to Point Z with no friction. And while repeated, connected instances of this kind of flow are a key component in achieving Csikzentmihalyi’s flow, right now I’m more concerned with not being annoyed on a daily basis.

This is where creativity and rigor need to get in the tub and make nice. For a long time. Are you designing the experience for a new website, app or both? Write down every imaginable scenario in which your owned and non-owned touchpoints interact with each other. Then take a break and write down some more. Have some lunch, walk around the block, then write down a bunch more. Seriously, it’s going to take time if you’re doing it right and some of the scenarios aren’t immediately obvious. For example:

  • What if I left a half-composed email open on one device, and when I open my email on another, I’ve been logged out?
  • What if I clicked into an article via an infinitely scrollable content stream, and then I want to click ‘back’ to regain my position in the stream?
  • What if I’m midway through a complex form and my battery dies?

Maybe you can’t solve them all in your first launch; solve some more in your 2nd and 3rd. Sometimes the issues are wholly within one device but more often they’re in the crossover. If you run across a great interaction pattern that someone has already spent hours and hours to design and test, adapt it to your needs: Google keeps Chrome tabs sync’ed across devices; Netflix handles paused content seamlessly. If you’ve got a tight budget, don’t spend it on The Play/Pause Button of the Future, you know what I mean?

Yes, it’s a lot of work to design across the myriad scenarios. It might be a lot more work to regain the trust and faith of a frustrated user. I’m looking at you, Facebook.

(And in case you were wondering, it’s pronounced MEE-hi CHEEK-sent-me-hi-ee.)

Photo credit: Thowi

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