For as long as humans have been walking this Earth, we have sought happiness and satisfaction. One of the earliest definitions of happiness comes from Greek philosophy with the term eudaemonia, which is Greek for "happiness" or "prosperity" (Deci and Ryan, cited in Moore, 2020). Eudaemonia stood for "the good life", the best possible version of yourself. Except what exactly constituted eudaemonia was (of course) up for debate.
Various Greek philosophers weighed in on this. While others interpreted eudaemonia as a trait, in the form of virtue or knowledge, Aristotle called it a pursuit (Huta and Waterman, cited in Moore, 2020) — an activity. Happiness, he reasoned, is finding your own personal version of "the good life" and doing everything you can to live that life. It's about the journey, not the destination. Happiness is simply doing what you love.
This Aristotelian vision of happiness would lay the groundwork for our understanding of flow.
Where philosophy describes abstract lessons, psychology aims to understand the factual working of the human mind and implement these lessons in reality (Exploring your mind, 2018). In the '60s, the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi was studying problem-solving in artists (Getzels and Csikszentmihalyi, cited in Moore, 2019) and became fascinated by their complete focus on the creative task. He commenced a study on this phenomenon, interviewing composers, rock climbers, dancers and more, asking them to describe what it felt like to practice their craft (Csikszentmihalyi, 1975/2000; Csikszentmihalyi and Csikszentmihalyi, 1988). The interviewees had varying accounts, but described similar sensations:
My mind isn’t wandering. I am not thinking of something else. I am totally involved in what I am doing. My body feels good. I don’t seem to hear anything. The world seems to be cut off from me. I am less aware of myself and my problems.
So many of Csikszentmihalyi's participants described their experience as a kind of "flow" that he decided to name the phenomenon exactly that (Csikszentmihalyi, 2004).
In essence, flow is the psychological phenomenon described by Aristotle's eudaemonian philosophy. It is the timeless joy you experience from doing what you love.
In subsequent research, Csikszentmihalyi and Nakamura (2009) found that flow state is characterised by six factors:
During flow, you're operating at "full capacity", and this sometimes takes so much mental "bandwidth" that you stop experiencing your body or the world around you (Csikszentmihalyi, 2004).
Flow is autotelic: worth doing for its own sake. Interviewees described flow experiences as highly self-rewarding and pleasurable (Stavrou et al., cited in Moore, 2019). Because of this, flow fosters intrinsic motivation: the activity itself will motivate people to continue, often seeking out new challenges and bettering themselves. Flow is thus an amazing catalyst for personal growth and self-actualisation, and higher self esteem.
Tools have been a part of humanity from the very beginning. In fact, tools are believed to be a vital step in our evolutionary journey (Lilley, 1948). The usage of tools allowed us to accomplish things our bodies couldn't do; even in its most primitive form, tools augment our abilities – specifically, our physical abilities. Tools have long been physical instruments.
An instrument for making material changes on other objects, as by cutting, shearing, striking, rubbing, grinding, squeezing, measuring, or other processes.
1. A handheld device that aids in accomplishing a task
This definition was correct for the overwhelming majority of humanity's history, even if the tools themselves became more and more advanced. Pointy stones made way for sophisticated tools of wood and metal, which eventually became mechanical machines powered by steam or electricity (Encyclopædia Britannica, 2016).
But then something shifted. In a mere couple of decades, large parts of our lives have become dependent on digital technology – and with that shift came new tools. These tools don't make material changes, but manipulate information instead. As such, we need to reconsider what constitutes a tool. Merriam Webster's second definition of tools helps us out:
2. Something (such as an instrument or apparatus) used in performing an operation or necessary in the practice of a vocation or profession
In its broadest definition, a tool helps us do something – irregardless of its physicality. It makes the impossible possible and the possible easier. In my expert interview with product designer Jasper Hauser, he summarised it as follows:
The reason tools exists is to make difficult things easier. That's it. If you're creating something that makes something more difficult, it's more likely to be art rather than a tool.
Thanks to the development of the microprocessor, graphical user interfaces, and the internet, computers became commonplace in our offices and, later, our homes (Freiberger et al, 2020b). As computers became mainstream, we've started to increasingly live our lives online. We watch movies on streaming apps, shop around on websites, and communicate with each other via social media (Freiberger et al, 2020a). These use cases still technically constitute as usage of digital tools, but they won't be the focus of this thesis, as they are not concerned with creation but mostly focus on consumption. To me, creation is what separates the tool from the pastime.
With this basic understanding of flow and digital tools in mind, two main research questions arise. This thesis attempts to explore these questions in depth and, where possible, answer them.
How does flow work in digital tools? Prior research suggests that flow plays an important role in maintaining digital engagement (Hoffman and Novak, 1996), and flow is a key aspect of social media (Pelet, Ettis and Cowart, 2017). But these studies are focused on engagement and consumption, not on motivation and creation. To answer this question I will research the psychological phenomenon of flow in further detail. Additionally, I will explore the interplay between interfaces and flow by taking a closer look at the current state of digital tools.
How might we create interfaces that cause flow? Digital tools have quickly become ubiquitous and indispensable for many of us. The field of digital experience design – concerned with how to make our interaction with- and experience of computers as great as possible – has never had more attention devoted to it. And yet our interfaces still seem to “get in the way”, forming a mental barrier to being creative or productive. I will examine the state of the industry and make the case for a new mental model. Next, I will present such a model and show how it might be applied within the practice of digital experience design.