Flow in Web Design--Chapter 2 from Speed Up Your Site (3/5) WebReference.com
Speed Up Your Site, Chapter 2: Flow in Web Design
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." 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. 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." 
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." Telepresence is a new dimension unique to online environments where users feel they are part of the action.
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.
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. Nantel, Sénécal, and Gharbi found that flow contributes to more hedonic online shopping experiences but not to utilitarian shopping. 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."
Created: February 5, 2003
Revised: February 21, 2003