an experiment in flow

recently i had cause to read mihalyi csikzentmihalyi’s book on the psychology of flow. i was struck by the acuity of his observations as i was the previous times i had read about his concept.

i have to mention right at the start this one huge aspect. while he doesn’t dwell on it in the book, there’s a background story to this concept of flow which has a certain profundity that doesn’t come out when reading about it on the internet’s secondary sources.

when mihalyi was 11 years old, he was in an italian war camp. this was during WWII. and that’s when he saw something drastically wrong with how adults thought. he came to focus on the positive aspects of human experience and proposed the psychology of flow. knowing that context casts a different light on flow. it’s not just about user experience in game play or experience design, it’s way more.

the book is easy to read. it’s as if your wise uncle is in your drawing room, smoking a pipe and telling you about life and how to be happy! you can easily skip back and forth between chapters and still understand what he’s saying.

so after reading the book, i thought of my favourite problem: how to make work more satisfying for me. (i realised i had unknowingly figured out the things he was saying about life, especially about passive entertainment, habits and hobbies.) so i chose work as my project for an experiment.

i picked a project that i was just getting started on and thought i’d try something. the project’s requirements were straightforward. nothing particularly exciting, challenging or difficult: quite run of the mill. i wondered, how can i use flow to alter the experience of working on such a project that by the end i’d feel satisfied, like i had tried something new, done something cool – would think of the experience to extract value consciously.

the client’s branding style lent itself to a material design kind of visual approach. so then i researched layouts in material design and found ‘robust’ patterns i could work with. the typical situation we run into is asking the graphics designers to make the page look better and having them respond with “but there’s too much text on the screen!”. i worked with a graphic designer on this problem and picked out text-heavy and text-only layouts. they were superbly designed, just not conventional elearning formats. we said we’d use those as a reference point to inspire fresh layouts. this is a compliance course, so there was a fair bit of text. i have a strong aversion to fluff images, added to which such visualisation didn’t seem to be in keeping with the philosophy of material design. so the text-based layouts addressed quite a few “pain points” – as i’ve heard managers say! 😉

then, based on the layouts and the kind of elements you can have in a material design approach, i realised i had to make tweaks to my style of storyboarding. the same explanation, yes, but the information had be laid out differently. i realised i should “lift” some things, reposition some others. this was the useful difference i found when i started working. when you’re working keeping a template in mind, it feels only restrictive. but a combination of design philosophy and layouts, it gives guidance for information design. such an interesting find!

as an added challenge, just for the fun of it, i told myself i had to capture the essence of a page in a single sentence. this would be one of my design elements, which obviously would feed into the visual design as well. from an instructional point of view, don’t you think it’s fantastic if you can capture a page of material in a single clear sentence? it makes for clarity, perspective on the details in the page, and gives the learner a very clear takeaway for each page. i was thrilled! so i did my prototype storyboard and sent it for review. i wondered if the reviewer would object to the stunts i was pulling, because all this was me quietly doing things by myself. but no, the reviewer was absolutely fine, because instructionally, the screens were solid.

so the boarding of the project itself has been illuminating. (i know working with the visual designer for development will certainly be interesting!) now the next phase i’m launching in the experiment: i’ve invited my visual designer to be part of the experiment. i’ve described the conditions for flow as i’ve understood them, and invited him to also make a guinea pig of himself as have i. so he’s researching material design and thinking of the boundaries he’d like to push and hone his skills on, and if he lets me know in time, i’ll also incorporate whatever is needed from ID and the storyboard into the full production of the storyboard. and then we’ll meet at the end to evaluate how the experience has been for us, what we can replicate (which should be a lot, given it’s all controlled individually by us within routine client requirements).

anyone else interested in trying something like this? 🙂