7 Interaction design strategies for staying in the flow

During my MFA thesis I searched for ways to harmoniously blend mediated interactions with an embodied activity like biking as if there were no interface, as if they were part of what the person is already doing or a natural extension of themselves. I wanted to tap into an ongoing flow experience, almost unnoticed, rather than disrupt or divide attention.

1 – Modal transitions

The end of the work day

Focus mode in iOS is an example of a change in notification settings, and even the home screen can change. You need to manually switch mode or define a trigger, such as a time frame or location, maybe your work place.

When you pick up a book, iOS won’t automatically switch to focus mode, since that action is not supported as a trigger for modal change. In the future we will likely see more context-aware modalities and more elaborate transitions. When you enter your home after work, this may initiate a wind-down sequence of actions.

2 – Doing mentality

Act of nourishment

Alan Kay has described three mentalities for interaction with screen interfaces, inspired by cognitive learning theory: (1) Doing, (2) Image, (3) Symbol. When we don’t have to make too much sense of unfamiliar images and symbols, we stay in the flow.

When you are entering a physical room to join an ongoing video conference, you may be required to log in, so that the other participants can see your name. Instead of forcing you to log in from a personal computer, the room could register your presence when you enter the door. Think of what the user is already doing, in this case walking into the room, and take that as input.

3 – Calmness

You heard him approaching

Calm technology, as described by Mark Weiser and John Seely Brown, helps us remain in a continuous flow where we can gently shift our attention from the center to the periphery and back. This keeps attention integral.

Notifications and dialogue boxes may integrate better into a flow, if they don’t seem to emerge out of nowhere, but rather from the fringe of attention and with consideration of the ongoing signal flow. In a silent setting, a quiet notification is enough.

4 – Activity-based app behaviour

Better watch out

Often apps are designed for generic objectives, such as ‘ease of use’, ‘consistency’, ‘seamlessness’. They are not designed for an activity. Spotify on the Apple Watch works well for sitting on the couch, worse for cycling, because it is not designed for that activity.

Today’s smartphones and smartwatches are able to detect the user’s current activity. When you are moving at a certain speed, on a bike lane, with a change in heart rate, probably you are biking. The user interface of an app can adapt to an activity. The information density can decrease, sizes of graphics and buttons can increase, or the interface can follow a different approach that better suits the activity.

5 – Immediate response

Sensing into the sea

That lag in the video stream or loading spinner while downloading your own files from the cloud server can really throw you out of the flow. It makes you aware of a technical process that is separate from you. When mediated interactions feel immediate or ‘second-to-nature’, they integrate better into our embodied experience. The Apple watch’s snappy taptic engine feels great.

Certain apps like Obsidian give an alternative to cloud-storage, a personal vault. Well-designed caching can avoid unnecessary delays. When a process takes time, micro-interactions can keep the user in the ongoing process. Tunnelbear does this well.

6 – Implicit interaction

Cigar lit, coolness implied

It easily becomes cumbersome if we need to explicitly tell a computer what we want to do, again and again: hit ‘save’ repeatedly or ‘navigate by bike’ while we are already sitting on the bike. According to Serim & Jacucci, the term implicit interaction is often used to denote interactions that differ from traditional purposeful and attention demanding ways of interacting with computers.

When you approach your MacBook while wearing your smartwatch, it unlocks implicitly. You don’t need to unlock explicitly. Google Maps could learn: Someone who is approaching their bike is likely about to bike. It could pre-select ‘navigate by bike’.

7 – Socio-spatial exposure

Heading downtown in company

The spatial or social context can fundamentally shape an interaction model. Exchanging files via airdrop feels different from email, because it is based on the immersion into a social and spatial setting. The same goes for browsing photos by date vs. by location.

What if you could browse memories or diary entries based on who was involved into that experience? What if you could collect and discover songs like bees collect pollen, without any side-tracking actions like hitting the Shazam button?