Designing for a state of flow
A while ago, I went nuclear on every notification on my desktop and iPad. I killed them all, apart from one slack channel, which by default is not open. I check into it at intervals that work for me.
I did this because I realised these notifications were a constant distraction – I was either:
- trying to ignore them and complete my task
- Interrupting what I was doing to reading them then complete my task with a mind to reply at a good time
- or replying immediately and forgetting what I was last doing.
In all cases, the mere presence of that red circle was enough to break my flow.
The value of flow
Flow is the state of mind where everything comes together and ideas and solutions just seem to “pop” into your head. You’re working efficiently and productively without effort. It is the state of work bliss that all of us who love what we do wish to get into as quickly as possible, stay in for as long as possible and from which come our best ideas.
And flow only happens when you’re not being distracted or under pressure.
Since each distraction is said to result in an extra 20 minutes work after the distraction has ceased, the loss of productivity came with additional billable time (or working later hours, depending on who’s pain point you care most about in this story).
I realised if I was to deliver what I was paid to in the best possible way, in the best possible time, I had to be less available and make a calm state of flow my number 1 priority.
The value of focus for apps
If you want your users to get the most out of your products (assuming the product has an end goal that’s not “taking a break”), you need to promote focus and flow while inside your product. Game designers understand this, creating an immersive experience that doesn’t allow distractions from outside the game.
Outside of games, products that understand the value of flow include:
- IA Writer and Atom code editor, and even Word are now adding full-screen, “distraction free” modes to their products.
- Balsamiq has it’s own inbuilt soundtrack (timed at 25 minutes to match your pomodoro breaks) to help designer get into the flow and stay focused.
- Insight meditation timer has the option to mute all sounds outside of the app while you use it, which is main reason I use that now instead of Calm.
- Slack has a snooze and ‘Do not disturb’ feature
- There’s even a project management app called flow which lets your colleagues know when you’ll be available to talk in your status.
The anti-flow: alerts
Unfortunately for your product, it feels like every developer on earth decided that app notifications is the holy grail to increased daily interaction.
I have 80 apps on my mobile alone. And almost the same number on my desktop.
That’s 160 daily distractions at a minimum that are interrupting my focus when I’m using a new product for the first time or a complex product.
Not including email alerts.
So if you ever find yourself wondering how someone didn’t see the help section, or how they keep getting confused between the “sign in” and “sign up” button, remember that every other app we have is competing for our attention, all the time.
Browsing the app store for “focus” on Mac shows over 200 products. There’s something wrong when buy products to block other products we bought.
Moving away from notifications, some ideas:
- Allow users to choose for themselves what notifications are red-circle-worthy. When someone includes a user in a conversation, adds them to a group, a chat channel, or tags them into a task, allow them to decide what priority these alerts are, perhaps using an amber or yellow circle to indiciate “there’s new stuff here, but nothing urgent”.
They might be interested in the conversation, but not every message or update is red-circle-worthy. When everything is important, nothing is.
- Instead of alerts in task managers and work communication apps like Slack, Workplace and Asana, how about a summery feature at intervals the user sets?
Why? Many people in companies get tagged in conversations or tasks just to keep “in the loop” of what’s happening and not really expecting to comment.
A summery would give them an overview how many things had changed and allow them to drill down into the full details of the alert IF it warrants their interest. If not, the summary and it’s associated alerts can be archived. This is not the same as swiping away all the alerts at once. The process of reading 15 alerts is more time and cognition intensive.
And wouldn’t you rather your business communication tool act like a personal assistant, giving you the gist of what happened while you were in meetings all day and letting you find out more, rather than acting like an insecure intern needing approval for every small accomplishment?
I’m not pretending to have the solutions here, but I am interested in us thinking and discussing how to achieve a more calm, focused experience- both for our tools and for our work culture – to help us all put out our best work.