Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Achieving that flow state for user experiences

What would happen if you took great game design principles and applied them to product development for something other than games? Would you get a really fun and engaging product? Or would you get a product that completely misses the mark? I don't know the answer just yet, but I suppose that is one of the good things about iterative product development :-)

In terms of what I've been able to gather so far, there's a few different variations on the theme with regards to this general notion of flow and or fun. According to social architect Amy Jo Kim, the elements to pay attention to with regards to game design include:
  • Collecting
  • Points
  • Feedback
  • Exchanges
  • Customization
Another writer on this topic of games and design, DanC, has these elements listed:
  • Action
  • Blackbox
  • Feedback
  • Mastery
According to a recent report about the motivational pull of video games (pdf), the following criteria are listed:
  • Autonomy
  • Competence
  • Presence
  • Intuitive
  • Relatedness
All of these items seem to be related to this broader concept of flow. Flow is perhaps best described by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi where he lists the following as the principle elements that facilitate this space:
  • Challenge
  • The ability to concentrate on that challenge
  • Clear goals
  • Immediate feedback
  • Deep involvement on the part of the participant
  • Sense of control over one's actions
  • The concern for one's self decreases
  • Sense of time is skewed
To put it in a more user friendly way, Karim Lakhani and Robert Wolf (pdf) describe flow as a state that occurs when "a person's skills matches the challenge of a task." Put another way, it is when your skills, experiences and knowledge all sync up to a particular situation at hand and you are in the moment when you are at your best.

Wouldn't it be great if all the users of your products and or services felt like that all the time? Seems to me that elements of flow or good game design need to be factored into the overall product development cycle.

Building upon what I've encountered so far (I'm still going through Csikszentmihalyi's book on flow, among some other references) I would say that for product development that helps prospective and current customers achieve that flow state, the following items must be considered throughout the entire design process:

Assuming that a user does a specific action and something happens behind the scenes, the following items should be considered:
  • Feedback
  • Personalization
  • Connection
  • Mastery
  • Optimization
In the case of a discussion forum where someone posts a message this flow state could look like this:

Feedback -- Message appears in location selected

Personalization -- This could be as simple as providing a personalized greeting acknowledging contribution in your native language, listing your name, etc in a conversational style or as complex as a personalized email doing the same.

Connection -- Provide links to other people who posted similar content or who are interested in similar content

Mastery -- Enable a notion of leveling tied specifically to the action of posting. The more messages a user posts, the more adept they are at the interface. Acknowledge the time (no matter how small) it takes for them to post a message. Something as simple as listing the message count, or something as complex as a reputation system tied to the frequency of content creation could be implemented here.

Optimization -- "Leveling up" needs to open up new opportunities for folks to do more. As a particular individual masters a specific action, let them do more to further optimize their experience. It could be skipping steps in a workflow because they know how to best do it, or it could be granting of additional options for them in posting a message.


Zooming back down to my day to day with blogs and forums...my sense is that much of this already exists to varying degrees. Granted, it could tie together more. For that matter, it could even tie together flow states for both blogs and forums. There's likely a lot more here...so I appreciate any thoughts and comments folks have on all this. thanks!


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