The Psychological Concept of Flow

A mental state

Defined by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, flow — known colloquially as “being in the zone” — is a mental state of operation in which a person is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment while performing an activity. In essence, flow is characterized by complete absorption in what one does and a resulting loss in one’s sense of space and time.

Good products often recollect the continuous acquisition of positive user experience. This concept is especially critical to social media platforms, as the ultimate goal is to allow users to stay on the platform as long and often as possible. Based on the foundation of the flow concept, we extracted five for a highly focused design:

  1. Clarity of goals
  2. Timely & valuable feedback
  3. Gamification
  4. High level of concentration
  5. Sense of control

Clarity of Goals

Designers should ensure that each step required by the user has crystal clear objectives.

According to the goal-setting theory, the goal itself should have an incentive effect that tells the user what the product or interface can accomplish. In general, most users don’t care about the architecture of the product; they care more about what the product or interface can do for them.

To ensure that users are not confused in the interaction process, they must have clear goals in every step throughout the entire interaction and be provided with satisfying guidance to motivate them to achieve what they want to do. Once the user clearly sees what kind of purpose he or she can achieve through the product, they will work hard to achieve the goal and gradually enter the state of flow.

Timely & Valuable Feedback

Give users sufficient feedback. Give reasonable results prompted at a reasonable time to let users know their position in the current user flow.

When people communicate with each other face-to-face, they pay great attention to feedback. And in general, whether it’s collaborating with colleagues or replying to a friend’s message, everyone naturally likes people who can give immediate feedback. Timely & valuable feedback is one of the key requirements for users to enter the state of flow that avoids interruption and weakening the user’s stream of consciousness, allowing users to define their position in the current user flow.

More specifically, it is important to understand the distinction between positive and negative feedback:

  1. Positive feedback refers to affirming the user’s operation, dispelling the user’s concerns, and establishing user confidence. For example, “Welcome to XXXX!” “Comment posted!” “Message sent,” or “Your profile will be updated in a few minutes,” etc. Timely positive feedback can give the user a pleasant experience, and allow the user to build a “good feeling” towards the product subconsciously.
  2. Negative feedback means feedback on unacceptable input, operational errors or necessary negative information coming from the product itself. For instance, “The search criteria do not apply,” “Cannot find the user,” “Password is too long,” “Not connected to the Internet,” etc. Moderate negative feedback allows users to clarify the interaction context in order to improve interaction efficiency and benefit the product experience. Conversely, excessively frequent negative feedback can have a counteraction that affects the flow of interactive consciousness.


Use entertainment as a driving force to retain the user’s interest and emotional needs.

Gamification design is also one of the most important conditions to stimulate the flow. Designers should understand that the game is integrated into the product design. The gamification is achieved by letting the user participate in a gamified scene and gaining results through their own efforts. Through gamification design, the user will be more attracted towards the product so that their interest level will increase significantly, thus, stimulating the user’s flow experience.

High Level of Concentration

By highlighting content, avoiding interruptions and inserting functional animation to keep the user’s attention on the product itself without being affected by external factors.

As mentioned earlier, users in the state of flow are highly concentrated. So the question is, how do we keep their attention on a continuously high level?

  1. Make design content-centric

In order to better attract users’ attention, the design should focus on content. First of all, reduce visual noise and establish content consistency and comprehensibility as design goals. Put the key and core content in the first place, develop a clear visual language, and remove irrelevant information noise and prioritize critical information.

Secondly, create a clearly defined hierarchy — present UI elements in a more defined order, make content easier to understand and guide users to interact with specific elements through strong visual language.

2. Avoid interrupting user flow

The excessive interruption will inevitably lead to a bad user experience. Designers need to make the user flow as smooth as possible. In life, all sorts of things constantly distract us, therefore, designers should take into account that users can easily return to their previous state after being interrupted.

3. Create functional animation

Dynamic interaction is also one of the most effective ways to increase the level of concentration. Just as we listen to music to help us focus during work, appropriate motion can also help users immerse themselves in the current scene. However, animation with no purpose can be OR is useless, and ultimately just another source of distraction. The right dynamic interaction refers to the interaction that is in line with interactive behaviors and can help users understand certain functions.

Sense of control

Let users continue to get the experience of success while using the product, which will enhance their self-efficacy, and thus maintain their satisfaction.

People like the feeling of control, because controlling things gives us a sense of security. Designers should follow this psychological behavior as well. In order to provide this sense of control, the design should allow users to perceive that the product changes are in line with their own expectations, control the process of product changes, and obtain the results they seek.

  1. Match the expectations

Whether it’s just an icon or the entire interactive flow, a good product should always be designed in accordance with the operational behaviors that the users are accustomed to. The designers’ job is to create that “Aha moment.” In this way, users will constantly validate their instincts, therefore building a strong trust in the product.

2. White lies (control illusion)

Designers have long been deceiving users. From Instagram to Twitter, every product leverages the control illusion as a tool to enhance their user experience. For instance, when you like a post while your phone has no or weak network, the screen will display the operation (liking the post) is successful but in fact, it’s still uploading. Once the network reconnects, the system will send the recorded operation out to the backend. This is a good little lie on the technology end because it gives users the illusion that they are in control, which enhances a smooth user experience. There are many similar strategies that the designers can implement to offer a sense of control.

3. Fault tolerance

Generally speaking, we should prevent users from making mistakes. But when they do, we need to make sure to still provide solutions so that they don’t feel like they are losing control.

a. First, give correct and effective prompts before executions to reduce the possibility of errors. Take sending emails as an example: in order to avoid users from sending a non-subject email by mistake, most email software will prompt a warning message to alert the user after they click the send button. This will give users a chance to self-correct so that they feel like they are in control of their own mistakes.

b. The second point of fault tolerance is the necessary follow-up when the user does happen to make a mistake. For instance, when Google returns no search results for the keyword you entered, it will provide some suggestions to bring the user back on track — “Make sure all words are spelled correctly,” “Try different keywords,” “Try more general keywords,” and “Try fewer keywords.”

Thoughts? Comment below to let us know.

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