Flow is a concept described by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (nope, still can’t say it) in his seminal work of the same name. Flow is about about achieving a mental ‘state of joy, creativity and total involvement, in which problems seem to disappear and there is an exhilarating feeling of transcendence’. A more vernacular expression of it might be ‘being in the zone’. You can apply it to many thing you do: in your work, in your leisure activities. If you achieve it, you are absorbed, and focused, and rewarded. You feel good. I want it!

How about 'an exhilarating feeling of transcendence' as a part of every brief?

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SO WHAT’S THIS GOT TO DO WITH DIGITAL DESIGN?

OK in case you’re wondering, let’s be clear: it has nothing to do with flow charts, flow diagrams. This is about a mental state.

The concept of flow is a useful lens to employ when designing and evaluating a digital experience. A good user experience contains flow. The act of completing a task or finding information should be straightforward, without barriers, and with reward. There could be some surprise or discovery along the way. At no stage would a user suffer confusion, barriers or frustration.

That sounds like the holy grail of digital experience or service design, so you’d think it would be a much used concept. Yet it’s underemployed as an idea used to evaluate design and UX–­ or at least contained mainly within the UX community – and that should change.

GET WITH THE FLOW

We encourage our clients to use flow as a tool or lens to help evaluate the bigger picture of your site or app experience.

As a simple heuristic, there’s two ways to consider how flow affects your site. (I’m omitting the visual flow or harmony of the design itself – assume that’s inherent in these).

1. TASK FLOW

The sort of flow we’re all probably most familiar with, and most often considered, particularly with transactional processes and conversions.

A good task flow is about mirroring mental models, reducing friction and barriers, and providing quality interactions through nice design. Put simply, you achieve it by testing and refining over time, watching users, looking for ways to enhance and delight.

2. NARRATIVE FLOW

This is the flow that we think is less considered, yet just as important – particular for businesses writing copy that drives users towards a call to action. A solid narrative flow presents content in a clear structure that builds a story. It should do this in an unrepetitive and fulfilling way that answers needs.

This sounds obvious doesn’t it? So why doesn’t it happen? Often down to the way sites are designed, copy is written, and sites are constructed – the process is siloed and broken. And, most likely, because narrative flow is just never considered. Flow is difficult to achieve but easy to wreck by decisions being made in isolation.

LIKE ALL GOOD THINGS, IT TAKES TIME

Flow is in the eye of the beholder. You can’t guarantee a user will experience flow, all you can do is try to maximise the chances a user will achieve it. It’s an elusive mistress. And when it happens it’s probably not even noticed.

By considering flow, you get into the head of your users. You need a deep empathy about how they approach and use your site or app. You get inside their mind and try to see everything through their eyes. Or, better, you watch people using your service, and do it regularly. It takes time and constant review and iteration. These are all very good things to do.

To find out more, here’s a link to the book from the clever man with the long name.