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UI Design Newsletter – March, 2010

John Sorflaten"Flow" – the iPhone (and Web) Experience that Sells

HFI Writer John Sorflaten, PhD, CPE, CUA, looks at the necessity of "flow" for a positive user experience.

Eric SchafferMessage from the CEO

Dr. Eric Schaffer, Ph.D., CUA, CPE, Founder and CEO of HFI offers practical advice.

"Flow" – the iPhone (and Web) Experience that Sells

Are you experienced?


Jimi Hendrix had no lock on what sells when it comes to selling "experience that attracts customers".

Look at the top downloads for iPhone apps and you see someone's personal retirement funds collecting on a daily basis from the profits on "experience".

By the way, this discussion of iPhone apps can equally apply to your website. How DO we make a website experience enjoyable? What qualities make surfing your site more fun than average? Let's talk about iPhone apps first.

The real question is: What separates the experience offered by the high-roller apps from the also-ran apps? Yes, it might just be word of mouth: your buddy told you to check out Mini Golf 99 Holes Theme Park or iHandy Level or Tap Tap Revenge 2 or Lose It for watching your calories.

On the other hand, marketing research firm Pinch Media tells us that for free and paid applications, only about 20-30 percent of users (meaning you) come back to an app after the first day. Only 5 percent use the app after 30 days.

Word-of-mouth does bring app users to the table. But it doesn't keep them there. Seventy to eighty percent of app buyers drop the ball after just one day. What's going on?

Getting into the "flow" experience

User-interaction research tells us what people want in computer interaction. Research on the "flow" experience builds on knowledge of "peak experiences".

You've probably heard sports figures report their peak experiences of "being in the zone". Well, for regular folks like you and me, the equivalent experience is "flow".

Let's see what "flow" feels like (are you experienced?). Remember the last iPhone app you tried out. Was that Ocarina or Around Me, or Wikipanion or Amazon?

I'll talk about Amazon because that's where I get the experience of flow when shopping for books.

From the originator of the flow concept, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi: flow is a "holistic sensation that people feel when they act with total involvement." (Look up Mihaly on iPhone's Wikipanion!)

Well, that's a mouthful. We just read (again): "acting with total involvement". When did you last have that experience?

Well, maybe YOU haven't had that holistic sensation yet with Amazon, but what about Tetris or Tap Tap Revenge 2?

Absorbed in activity

Here's another clue to the flow state: people "become absorbed in their activity".

Imagine you are running to catch a 40 yard pass for the Rose Bowl. Sports figures report these experiences when they're "in the zone". Regular people have similar reports when they're "in the flow". They experience...

  • narrowing of the focus of activity
  • filtering out of irrelevant perceptions and thoughts
  • loss of self-consciousness
  • responsiveness to clear goals
  • a sense of control over the environment

Does this sound like your experience with the iPhone in general? Well, that might be an exaggeration. But for a given application – whether iPhone or the Web, you can try to provide the experience of flow for your customers.

Amazing Amazon

I'll report what happens to me with Amazon when shopping for books.

First, I find it easy to do the search. I put in a topic, author's name, or a portion of the title. Not hard to do, and it gives me a list with the best matches at the top. No "flow" yet.

But, when I start hunting for that special book I really really want, (I'm a book hound) I can narrow my focus of activity. (Remember "narrow focus of activity" for flow?)

I read down the search results list rapidly reviewing and evaluating titles, authors, and best of all, the pricing for new and used books. I check out the all-important Amazon discount. That gives me a sense of control, too. (Remember "sense of control" for flow?)

Even better, since I'm a nut for fast delivery, I already have signed up for 2-day Prime service. Therefore Amazon's "Prime" logo becomes another clue to fulfilling my need for speedy retail response.

My focus rapidly narrows to "Prime" but also negotiates the cost difference for the used books.

I get a sense of control by adding the $4 cost of shipping to the cost of the used version of the book. I rapidly compare that to the discounted cost of the new book.

Voila, the discounted new book – comes out very close to the cost of the used book (that costs me an extra $4.00 for shipping).

Did I forget about the yearly $76 I paid for the 2-day Prime delivery service? You bet. That was last month. I'm hot on the trail of a purchase right now. (Does that sound like "flow"?)

Figure 1
Figure 1. Prime 2-day delivery is "free" after signing up for the program. The used book costs $4,00 extra for shipping. So, do the math. Add $4.00 to the used book price of 4.98 = almost $9. But it takes a 7-10 days to get the used book. The new book with Prime costs $11.70, only $2.70 more. I'm happy to pay the extra $2.70 and get the book in 2 days instead of 7-10. Just evaluating all this plus the option of rapid fulfillment puts me in the "flow" experience. Even better, sometimes I'll click on the author's name to see the list of books in order to find a cheaper used book. I look for instances of the same book title but with a different price! It happens!

The same title might have different ISBN numbers – and also have a much lower price.

Over time, I have become a "professional shopper" of sorts. I can save $50 on the book price sometimes just by looking at this new list.

Figure 2
Figure 2. Note that the same title "Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience" shows up at least twice on the search results list. At this point, my instincts for "shopping excellence" overtake me, and I compare the used book prices. $1.99 versus $4.49 makes the choice easy. If I want the used book, I'll take number 15 – the $1.99 version. And I had fun searching the lists for the best deal.

In this shopping experience, I have exercised all these "flow" indicators:

  • narrowing of the focus of activity
  • filtering out of irrelevant perceptions and thoughts
  • loss of self-consciousness
  • responsiveness to clear goals
  • a sense of control over the environment

Now let's apply "flow" to an analysis of what makes games fun (are you experienced in games?).

The flow of games

Does my Amazon shopping experience sound like a game?

Well, games typically score high on measures of "flow" for all the reasons given in our bullet list above. We get "absorbed". We "focus". We lose "self-consciousness". We have "clear goals" and a "sense of control".

For me, using Amazon starts feeling like a game of getting the best and fastest deal in town. Does this sound like your experience with the iPhone in general?

Flow happens on websites, too. Does it sound like that website where you build your own Mini-Cooper? Does it sound like your beauty salon where you can fantasize the new you with your makeover?

The Pinch Media research substantiates the leg up on "experience" given by iPhone games. For example, game apps get about 10 minutes of use on the first day, falling to only about 7 minutes of daily use out to as long as 60 days.

Whereas other categories like utilities, lifestyle and sports apps start out at about 4 minutes of use the first day. They remain at 3 or 4 minutes daily for the next 60 days. (Remember, these figures apply only to those people who continue to use the app. Many other people stop using the app altogether.)

Figure 3

When it comes to explaining the "flow" of peak experiences, we've learned that the designer needs to keep the experience easy enough that you don't get frustrated. If you have to stop to figure out how to use Amazon, for example, you simply won't feel the flow.

"Flow" from balance of skill and challenge

In fact, research on flow tells us that users (like you and me) need some challenges (otherwise, what's a game for?). But you also need some skill that matches the challenge.

So, that's the key to experiencing flow: if a task is too easy, well, that means it's not letting us "conquer" anything.

Imagine that if you had a computer that played Tap Tap Revenge for you? Not much of a challenge. This applies to those other websites as well, like building your Mini-Cooper or selecting that next outfit for your summer vacation.

Likewise, what if Amazon just showed you the best deal without the "shopping" experience? Would you enjoy just paying without at least examining your other choices just in case you found something that struck your fancy?

Notice these italicized words stretch our boundaries – which is what we want when shopping. After all, even "window shopping" has charms. We're learning what's available. That's an achievement right there.

Flow with the user experience game

So next time you check out new apps, understand the new game in town is "user experience". Finding an app is as much an experience as using your new iPhone app or using that special website.

Notice that Apple made one-stop app shopping a manageable challenge with iTunes and your iPhone app store. This innovation lets you spend your time looking and comparing, instead of getting stumped and befuddled just finding apps. That enhanced your "flow" right there. Apple gave you some windows nicely arrayed for window shopping.

Then, when you use your new app (whether for just one day or more), check out how well it pulls you out of the humdrum daily grind. Rising above the humdrum leads to "flow".

Remember the sports greats who report "automatic reactions" or "feeling free of the body" or "my arm just knew what to do". That's "being in the zone".

Maybe your day in the sun can happen when your next iPhone app or website generates some "flow". Let's hope the developers of your app or website have read this article and know how to help you experience some flow.

By the way, did you miss my usual obeisances to our research authors and their numeric findings? You can check them out in the references below.

I left them out just to give you more of that "good ol' flow".


Edutech Wiki, "Flow Theory".

Hoffman, Donna L. and Thomas P. Novak (1996), "Marketing in Hypermedia Computer-Mediated Environments: Conceptual Foundations," Journal of Marketing, 60 (July), 50-68.

Mack, C (2009) "Should iPhone Game Developers Give Their Apps Away?" Inside Network Inc. website.

Novak, Thomas P., Hoffman, Donna L., Dhachek, Adam (2003), "The Influence of Goal-Directed and Experiential Activities on Online Flow Experiences," Journal of Consumer Psychology, 13 (1 & 2) 3-16.

WebSiteOptimization.com, "Flow in Web Design".

This a GREAT article. I've been wondering for ages how I or someone Jimi Hendrix in to a user experience topic. Why yes, I am experienced, thanks for asking. An Flow, too (read Csíkszentmihályi in '98). But both together? Very impressive.

For flow, there are a number of stars that need to align for it, some of which a designer can determine, some not (environment, user's comfort, satiated state, restedness, etc.). This is an area that designers of systems used for complex tasks really need to explore, focus on, and promote among our peers and partners. Undervalued.

Fantastic entry Mr. Schaffer!

Customer-Centered Interactive

The March 2010 issue disappoints.

As delighted as I am to see Jimi Hendrix' face almost anytime, anywhere, its use at the top of this column seems non sequitur if not downright exploitive.

A recent book reflects on the fact that the only album for which Jimi Hendrix had complete control did not sell well at the time, and was generally scorned by reviewers. It is unclear that he made an effort to "attract customers," preferring instead to play his latest music, thinking that songs just six months old were no longer "representative" of his current interests and capabilities.

Even your conversation about "high-roller" apps and "also-ran" apps points out that VERY FEW apps have lasting value.

Perhaps the objective is to get producers of all kinds, including Web developers, to consider the quality of their content first, and look at the sales charts last.

Jimi, after all, doesn't realize his most recent album hit the Top 10...

Rod Morgan
Systems and Integration Office

Rod, really man... it was just a play on words, and an eyecatching one, at that.



Reader comments on this and other articles.
Message from the CEO, Dr. Eric Schaffer
Eric Schaffer

I grew up playing arcade games (because my family owned Play Land on Times Square). So it was pretty natural that I wondered why people would PAY to use computers in the arcade, and why they would need to be paid to use the computers where I worked at AT&T. I published that question in 1981, and no one cared. Because at the time it was a challenge to just make the hardware and software work. Making it fun was not on anyone's radar.

But today hardware and software is a given. And usability is a hygiene factor. It is a basic requirement to make things usable, and to be competitive things need to be fun (or at least persuasive). The other Dr. Schaffer in HFI (my son Noah) did his PhD on usability of computer games. Now he helps make even banking systems fun! And that is NOT just public banking, I'm talking about core banking applications. We are all ready to do it. Let's make work fun. Let's make applications fun.

Flow is just one part of the picture. But it is finally time that we get smart about the methods of designing engagement into even our most serious applications. Noah often reminds me that there is easy fun, hard fun, people fun, and serious fun. And we better get good at designing all that.

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