The Flow State: Working Through Frustration

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "The Design of Everyday Things" by Don Norman. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What is the flow state in psychology? Why is it important to understand flow states when it comes to design?

The flow state occurs when a person is completely absorbed in an activity. It’s a part of behavioral processing that’s important for designers to understand.

Read more about the flow state and how it works.

The Flow State

The study of human cognition and emotion is an extremely complex area of neuroscience. A simplified model of this process is helpful for understanding the basic ideas and their implications for design. This model divides emotional and cognitive processing into three distinct levels: visceral, behavioral, and reflective. Each of these levels has important implications for design, so understanding them is crucial in order to design technology that is easy to use and to enjoy.

Optimizing the Three Levels

The most successful designs address issues at all three of these levels, leaving users with a pleasant memory of the experience and a positive view of the design. Traditionally, designers, artists, and architects are trained to focus on the visceral level, creating aesthetically beautiful projects that provoke an immediate positive response. Engineers, on the other hand, focus on the reflective level, creating projects that function based on logic and higher reasoning. 

This is one reason common objects are so often confusing or disappointing to use. The ultramodern, solid glass door described in Chapter 1 might provoke a positive visceral response, but the lack of a clear, logical way to interact with it creates confusion at the reflective level. At the other extreme, medical equipment is often designed purely to perform a specific function. These machines might be incredibly technologically sophisticated, but the confusing or sterile aesthetic can trigger a visceral fear response in patients. 

The three levels of processing also map onto the seven stages of action. The second and last of the seven stages (“plan” and “compare”) happen at the reflective level, as they involve consciously setting goals and evaluating results. The “specify” and “interpret” stages happen at the behavioral level, involving a mix of conscious and unconscious processing. The “perform” and “perceive” stages happen immediately before and after the action itself, and are processed subconsciously on the visceral level. 

Example: The Flow State

To understand the importance of this overlap, let’s look at the concept of flow. The term “flow,” coined by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, refers to a cognitive and emotional state in which a person is completely absorbed in an activity. When in a state of flow, people are so engrossed in an activity that they completely shut out the outside environment and often lose track of time.

The flow state in psychology is created at the behavioral level of processing. Remember that the behavioral level involves subconscious expectations—we expect a certain outcome to follow a certain action, and when that doesn’t happen, we tend to get frustrated. People are most likely to be in flow when the task they’re working on is just slightly above their skill level. 

When an overly easy task satisfies our expectations immediately, with very little effort, the lack of challenge leaves us feeling bored. On the other hand, an overly difficult task is likely to be so overwhelming that our expectations are repeatedly unmet, so we get frustrated and give up. Tasks that trigger flow states strike the perfect balance between ease and frustration (or between met and unmet expectations). The tension between these two emotions powerfully captures our attention and pulls us into a state of flow. 

Although the flow state in psychology is a personal experience and no one design can trigger a flow state for every single user, it’s still a powerful force in shaping user experience. Users in a state of flow spend hours at a time engaging with a product and will associate it with a feeling of satisfaction and enjoyment. Those positive experiences are likely to create happy, loyal customers. In other words, helping users get into a state of flow is good for the bottom line. 

So, what does this have to do with design? Since the design of technology has a direct impact on how users engage with it, changing certain design factors can maximize the chance of creating a specific internal response for the user, including a state of flow. To do this successfully, we need to understand both the three levels of processing and the seven stages of action. 

  • First, we need to know which of the three levels is responsible for processing the desired emotion (in this case, the fact that being in flow is determined by expectations tells us we are dealing with the behavioral level). 
  • Next, we need to know which of the stages of action are involved (in this case, “specify” and “interpret”), since these stages tell us what specific activities influence that level of processing. In other words, understanding the levels of processing tells us where design can intervene, and understanding the seven stages of action tells us how
The Flow State: Working Through Frustration

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  • How psychology plays a part in the design of objects you encounter daily
  • Why pushing a door that was meant to be pulled isn't your fault
  • How bad design leads to more human errors

Carrie Cabral

Carrie has been reading and writing for as long as she can remember, and has always been open to reading anything put in front of her. She wrote her first short story at the age of six, about a lost dog who meets animal friends on his journey home. Surprisingly, it was never picked up by any major publishers, but did spark her passion for books. Carrie worked in book publishing for several years before getting an MFA in Creative Writing. She especially loves literary fiction, historical fiction, and social, cultural, and historical nonfiction that gets into the weeds of daily life.

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