Flow is the most enjoyable state of the mind, and flow is a very descriptive word for this state of mind as well. You remember those hours you spent solving that really hard problem at work? They did seem to go past awfully quick, right? That's flow, basically. When we are really focusing on a task that is challenging enough for our skills, that's when we reach flow. While in flow, we can forget about everything unrelated to the task at hand and avoid what is called psychic entropy, or disorder in consciousness. The activity and the person become one entity. Flow exists between boredom and frustration; if the activity becomes too easy, it's boring, and if it becomes too difficult, enter frustration. To stay in flow, the challenge of the activity needs to grow along with the person's skills.
Of course, some people can turn any activity into flow by designing their own goals within the activity while some people can't find flow even in the best circumstances. However, if the activity itself is designed with flow in mind, the state should be far easier to reach. This is why the concept of flow is extremely important for game designers. Games provide a continuous series of challenges and associated long (e.g. finish the game) and short term goals (e.g. defeat the boss). I will go over goals and goal forming in a later entry. In the optimal situation, a game can continuously provide interesting challenges to the player as her skills develop. Reality of course typically falls a bit short of the mark because player skills develop at a different pace. To compensate, difficulty regulation strategies are typically present in games.
The interesting question here is can we use interface or application design to improve the chances of turning tasks into flow activities. I have actually visited this topic earlier in several blog entries, although I didn't use the term flow activity as I hadn't read the book yet. One really simple idea that has been evaluated in at least one research paper* by researchers at Nokia Research and University of Tampere is to add achievements as an additional way to track one's progress. What makes games like Tetris or pinball machines highly addictive is the ability to compare your results to previous achievements of yourself or others. Score keeping is a really powerful feedback machine. When you get more points or break your time record you immediately know that you have improved.
Unsurprisingly, proper feedback is mentioned as one requirement of a flow activity. If we take all the requirements as inputs into a design process of an application and interface, what will come out? Will the outcome make it easier for users to get into flow state when working with that application? I'm thinking these could be among my key research questions. One challenge is to find a way to integrate flow activity requirements into a design process, and another one is to evaluate the results. In this entry I have been merely scratching the surface of things like goal forming, difficulty regulation and achievements. I will delve deeper into these subjects later on and see what interesting things I can dig out. In the meanwhile, I suggest everyone to check out this book. It really is important.
* The paper I'm referring to is "Applying Game Achievement Systems to Enhance User Experience in a Photo Sharing Service" (Markus Montola, Timo Nummenmaa, Andrés Lucero, Marion Boberg, Hannu Korhonen).