Flow in Web Design--Chapter 2 from Speed Up Your Site (2/5) WebReference.com
Speed Up Your Site, Chapter 2: Flow in Web Design
The answer is that life is worth living when we can experience the joy of doing what we want to do, have autotelic experiences, or flow. Without flow "there would be little purpose in living."
Flow is a positive, highly enjoyable state of consciousness that occurs when our perceived skills match the perceived challenges we are undertaking. When our goals are clear, our skills are up to the challenge, and feedback is immediate, we become involved in the activity.
We can become so involved that we lose our sense of self and time distorts. The experience becomes autotelic or intrinsically rewarding; we do it for its own sake. People who have experienced flow consistently report the same nine dimensions:
Unambiguous and immediate feedback
Skills that just match challenges
Merging of action and awareness
Centering of attention on a limited stimulus field
A sense of potential control
A loss of self-consciousness
An altered sense of time
An autotelic experience
Flow depends on how we perceive our skills and the challenges at hand. We may feel "anxious one moment, bored the next, and in a state of flow immediately afterward."
As you can imagine, as our skill level improves, we must undertake more difficult challenges to achieve a flow state. Flow encourages us to improve ourselves and our web sites. People tend to repeat activities they enjoy, so flow is like a Darwinian force of nature, subtly changing society. That's why people tend to return to web sites they enjoy. Csikszentmihalyi wrote this about flow and cultural evolution:
"Flow is a sense that humans have developed in order to recognize patterns of action that are worth preserving and transmitting over time." 
The best memes are passed down through generations.
Attention! Supply Is Limited
Our supply of attention (otherwise known as "bandwidth") is limited. Csikszentmihalyi estimated that we can process about 126 bits per second, which I'll update in light of recent findings. This is based on our ability to recognize seven chunks of information per unit of time, plus or minus two, and Orme's estimate of our "attentional unit" of 1/18th of a second. This gives humans 18 x 7 or 126 bits per second of processing power.
As you learned in Chapter 1, "Response Time: Eight Seconds, Plus or Minus Two," our span of immediate memory is more on the order of five, or as low as three, which means that our bandwidth is on the order of 90 to 126 bits per second. That gives humans a processing power of around 5,400 to 7,560 bits of information per minute.
What can we accomplish with this limited attention capacity? Csikszentmihalyi estimated that listening to a conversation takes about 40 bits per second, or about one third to one half of our bandwidth. That's why it is so difficult to listen to multiple conversations, or to play engrossing games or sports while listening to a conversation. It's also one reason why designers are told to minimize distractions on the web.
14. Denny C. LeCompte, "Seven, Plus or Minus Two, Is Too Much to Bear: Three (or Fewer) Is the Real Magic Number," Proceedings of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society 43rd Annual Meeting (1999): 289292. Back
Created: February 5, 2003
Revised: February 21, 2003