Go with the flow
By John Geirland
According to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, great Web sites are not about navigating content, but staging experience. A compelling Web site transforms a random walk into an exhilarating chase. The key, says psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, is a finely tuned sense of rhythm, involvement, and anticipation known as “flow.” Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced “CHICK-sent-me-high-ee”), a professor at the University of Chicago, has spent more than 25 years researching flow, a state of “intense emotional involvement” and timelessness that comes from immersive and challenging activities such as software coding or rock climbing. His work is studied by marketing specialists like Vanderbilt University’s Donna Hoffman and Thomas Novak, who write that flow is “a central construct when considering consumer navigation on commercial Web sites.” In books like Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention, Csikszentmihalyi explores the implications of flow for personal and societal evolution.
What do you mean by flow?
: 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.
How can a Web site be designed to stimulate and sustain a flow experience?
A Web site that promotes flow is like a gourmet meal. You start off with the appetizers, move on to the salads and entrées, and build toward dessert. Unfortunately, most sites are built like a cafeteria. You pick whatever you want. That sounds good at first, but soon it doesn’t matter what you choose to do. Everything is bland and the same. Web site designers assume that the visitor already knows what to choose. That’s not true. People enter Web sites hoping to be led somewhere, hoping for a payoff.
So goals are important?
Goals transform a random walk into a chase. You need clear goals that fit into a hierarchy, with little goals that build toward more meaningful, higher-level goals. Here you are, tracking the footprints of some animal you haven’t seen. That’s exhilarating. Then there’s the question of feedback. Most Web sites don’t very much care what you do. It would be much better if they said: “You’ve made some interesting choices” or “You’re developing a knowledge of Picasso.” There’s also the ability to challenge. Competition is an easy way to get into flow.
Internet marketers embrace flow as the “glue that holds consumers in the online environment.” Are people more easily influenced while in a state of flow?
Actually, they’re probably more critical. A flow experience has got to be challenging. Anything that is not up to par is going to be irritating or ignored.
Your interest in flow came out of your work on the psychology of creativity. What advice do you have for online content creators who want to be more creative?
Realize that change and downtime are important. I found that if a painter relates to objects only through vision, his work is much less original than a painter who walks up to the object, smells it, throws it in the air, and manipulates it. The variety of sensory inputs allows you to create a visual image that has all kinds of dimensions bubbling up inside it. We are still a multimedia organism. If we want to push the envelope of complexity further, we have to use all of our devices for accessing information – not all of which are rational.
– John Geirland (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a writer and management consultant specializing in new media. He has a doctorate in social psychology.
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