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What Causes Flow Online?

Speed and control play a big part in establishing flow in online interactions. In 1996, Hoffman and Novak extended Csikszentmihalyi's work to consumer navigation on the web. They proposed that users return to web sites that facilitate flow and suggest that online marketers offer these "flow opportunities."16 It turns out that marketers are listening. Nearly 45 percent of the users that they surveyed experienced flow online. A subsequent study found that 47 percent of users had experienced flow on a specific web site.17 Hoffman and Novak defined flow online as:

"the state occurring during network navigation which is: (1) characterized by a seamless sequence of responses facilitated by machine interactivity, (2) intrinsically enjoyable, (3) accompanied by a loss of self-consciousness, and (4) self-reinforcing." 18

The prerequisites for flow online are similar to those offline. On the web, flow "is determined by (1) high levels of skill and control; (2) high levels of challenge and arousal; and (3) focused attention; and (4) is enhanced by interactivity and telepresence."19 Telepresence is a new dimension unique to online environments where users feel they are part of the action.20

Novak, Hoffman, and Yung tested and refined their conceptual model of flow to create a structural model that describes the factors that make for a compelling online experience. They found that flow is a multidimensional construct with nine variables, including interactive speed.

Speed and Flow

Hoffman, Novak, and Yung found that the speed of interaction had a "direct positive influence on flow" on feelings of challenge and arousal (which directly influence flow), and on importance. Skill, control, and time distortion also had a direct influence on flow.21

The researchers then applied their model to consumer behavior on the web. They tested web applications (chat, newsgroups, and so on) and web shopping, asking subjects to specify which features were most important when shopping on the web.

They found that speed had the greatest effect on the amount of time spent online and on frequency of visits for web applications. For repeat visits, the most important factors were skill/control, length of time on the web, importance, and speed.

So to make your site compelling enough to return to, make sure that it offers a perceived level of control by matching challenges to user skills, important content, and fast response times.

Experiential versus Goal-Directed Flow

Confirming their previous work, the authors found two types of flow: experiential (associated with recreational surfing) and goal-directed (associated with research, shopping, etc.). The authors suggest that these two types of activities require different web site designs to facilitate flow.

Less-experienced users tend to see the web in a hedonic, playful way, while more experienced users tend to view the web in a utilitarian way, or a means to accomplish tasks. The authors found that telepresence/time distortion, exploratory behavior, focused attention, and challenge/arousal correlated with recreational web use, while skill/control, importance, and experience correlated with task-oriented activities, such as research, work, and shopping.

There is some debate over which type of flow is more common on the web. A subsequent study found that flow is more likely to occur during task-oriented activities than during recreational activities.22 Nantel, Sénécal, and Gharbi found that flow contributes to more hedonic online shopping experiences but not to utilitarian shopping.23 They suggest that e-tailers offer both types of activities for a compelling shopping experience. Offer "flow opportunities" plus utilitarian features like one-click buying, intuitive searches, and customized pages.

In either case, to facilitate flow, as designers we must offer plenty of speed and "enough challenge to arouse the consumer, but not so much that she becomes frustrated navigating through the site and logs off."24

An Interview with Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

To find out more about flow, speed, and web design, I talked to Dr. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who popularized the notion of flow.

    Andy King: You talk about immediate feedback being a prerequisite for the flow state. How does speed of interaction influence flow?

    Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi: If you mean the speed at which the program loads, the screens change, the commands are carried out—then indeed speed should correlate with flow. If you are playing a fantasy game, for instance, and it takes time to move from one level to the next, then the interruption allows you to get distracted, to lose the concentration on the alternate reality. You have time to think: "Why am I wasting time on this? Shouldn't I be taking the dog for a walk, or studying?"—and the game is over, psychologically speaking.

    King: Responsive feedback of an activity and feelings of control go hand in hand. Can you elaborate on that?

    Csikszentmihalyi: Actually it's not so much the "feeling" of control, as the fact that you can act without thinking, without interruption, and making your own choices (for example, BEING in control). If a computer program has a mind of its own, is not responsive to your commands, or is so slow as to appear to be a moron, then you are again brought back to "reality" and lose flow.

    King: Has your definition of flow changed over the years?

    Csikszentmihalyi: The only change has been that we found it takes above average challenges AND skills to get into flow. Also, there seem to be individual differences so that some people prefer to be in control (that is, high skill, moderate challenge) to being in flow.

    King: You said that web sites should be like a gourmet meal to enable flow.25 Can you elaborate?

    Csikszentmihalyi: What I meant is that like in a good meal, you should have varieties of tastes and textures, metaphorically speaking.

    King: What do you think the key attributes would be of web sites that enable flow?

    Csikszentmihalyi: The key attribute is that it should be very user-friendly and transparent at first, but one should immediately be able to find complexity in it, so as to find quickly the right level of opportunities for "action" that match one's skills. These "challenges" include the visual aspects as well as the content.26

Shopping Site Design

Hoffman, Novak, and Yung performed an additional survey on web shopping using a list of features that shoppers found important on the Internet. They found customer support to be very important for a "smooth" shopping experience. Speed plays a role in a compelling shopping experience, contributing significantly to ease of contact and variety.27

Variety and quality of information are important to consumers. Shoppers don't want cutting-edge technology, however. It just gets in the way of consumer goals.

Flow Can Be Measured

The researchers found that "the degree to which the online experience is compelling can be defined, measured, and related well to important marketing variables."28 Marketers can use their flow model to discover the secrets of online success.

The Benefits of Flow Online

People who experience flow tend to be more playful,29 exploratory,30 and willing to try new things. They tend to stay longer, and return to web sites that facilitate flow. Hoffman and Novak found the following benefits of flow online:31

  • Increased learning

  • Exploratory and positive behavior

  • Positive subjective experience

  • Perceived sense of control over their interaction

The bottom line is that people in flow are having fun, and truly enjoying themselves. Of course, you can have too much of a good thing. The authors warn that playful people in flow can take longer to complete tasks, although staying longer on your web site isn't necessarily a bad thing. People in flow can also become overinvolved in an activity.

Marketers know that engaged users tend to buy more products, so making your site flow can make a big difference to the bottom line. It is relatively easy to get users to come to your site, but getting them to stay is another matter.

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