Wednesday 8 December 2010

Flow and the City

Flow and the City was first published as an essay in Luxury Briefing, in November 2010.


Flow and the City
by Alexander Gallé

The concept of Flow has interested quite a few interactive designers since the publication, in the mid-90s, of "Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience" by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. This article aims to increase awareness of Flow to designers and design-thinkers in other fields, not only in the luxury sector, but in transport design, urban design and architecture.

Csikszentmihalyi's book discusses the idea of human happiness as a state of mind, called Flow, wherein a person is so fully engaged in the interaction with, say, a work project or the study of a new subject, in the activity for its own sake, that s/he enters a state of low self-centeredness and complete absorption with the activity's own intrinsic purpose.

You would, for example, think of Flow as the condition Michelangelo was in when he painted the Sixtine chapel: he spent days on end in a state of heightened concentration, entirely dedicated to the work in and of itself, pausing only briefly to eat or drink, sleeping only out of physical exhaustion and waking up refreshed enough to simply continue where he left off and immerse himself in the task.

Aside from Csikszentmihalyi's analogies in the arts world, you could think of their equivalent in the sports world, e.g. Ayrton Senna describing a "heightened" state of mind during his races. You could think of Flow in the music world, e.g. bass players describing their flow of interaction with drums and melody as being "in the pocket" or "in the groove". Or, you could think about Flow in oriental forms of meditation and spirituality e.g. Zen, Taoism as well as some martial arts masters describing an altered state of consciousness.

In fact, there are a great number of experiences you could term as Flow in normal daily life: computer programmers getting into a state of Flow they describe as being "wired", mathematicians being "in the zone", etc.

Flow is, in other words, an innately positive experience, known to produce intense feelings of enjoyment, as well as optimal performance, personal growth and skill development (see figure).

Why the theory of Flow should be interesting to designers - and interaction designers specifically - is very simple: it is the ultimate measure of quality for any object which has been designed to match its interaction with users in such a way that the latter stop thinking about the interaction and become able to focus and immerse themselves in the task beyond the interface.

Just as you don't think about moving your left and right leg when you walk, a properly designed interface will let you interact with an object without forcing you to think about the interaction itself.

Automobile interiors, for example, have been largely designed to achieve this. A car that has been designed with Flow in mind is a car that you drive in such a way that it becomes like an extension of your own body. The car's interface doesn't obstruct your chain of thoughts as you accelerate, decelerate, turn left or right in order to go through space.

This is especially important in the automobile sector, for two reasons. The first is that we obviously don't want users to think too much about the act of driving itself when they should be paying attention to the road. The other is that driving a car is a very immersive experience: the driver is literally "inside" the car. From an interactive point of view, you "interact in" the car, becoming one with the car. The experience is very powerful, especially in luxury cars where - depending on the brand philosophy - this immersive interaction experience can be even more important than the car's performance itself. This is an altogether different and more intensive experience from other designed objects or interfaces where the object is something to "interact at". The "interacting at" part of driving happens between the user-car entity and the road / city. More on this later.

As technology and product design have converged, the impact of Flow on design has greatly increased, especially in terms of commercial success.

For example, the huge commercial success of both the iPod and the iPhone can be largely attributed to Flow. When the iPod came out, there were already a few mp3 players on the market, all performing pretty well in terms of playback quality and other intrinsic factors relating to sound itself. The key differentiator for the iPod was Flow: the way the interface "plugs into" the user's way of thinking about data. This was even more true for the iPhone, which not only turned the hardware into an "all-interface" object, but managed to make all interaction within that space very fluid, thus opening the possibility of Flow between the user and the information space behind the interface.

This is exactly the "invisible perfection" Coco Chanel described when talking about luxury. It is an approach to the making of things that places the user's experience of the product at the starting point of the design process, the object's functionality - and ultimately its commercial "raison d'être" - being to add quality to the user's experience of life, through the object.

So, if Flow-oriented product design creates such added value to commercial products that it elevates them into the realm of luxury, is it conceivable that other areas of design might also benefit from Flow thinking?

I mentioned, a couple of paragraphs ago, that Flow thinking had transposed the "interacting at" part of vehicle design so that the user and vehicle become one entity, interfacing with the road or city. This leads one to the natural conclusion that a new field of interaction design would be called for to solve the frustration and unhappiness that exists between users and cities. Looking at user frustration, for example, notice the difference between computer rage and road rage: users might hit their monitors in anger over their computer's inability to connect with a printer, but you rarely see car drivers hit their car in anger at its inability to get them to their destination. The anger is in the poor "interacting at" part, i.e. the city and transport system which the user / vehicle interacts with (which, unfortunately, sometimes involves other users and their vehicles, or large clunky buses...).

In other words, the city itself, and certainly its transport system which is the cause of endless user frustration and unhappiness, needs to be re-thought from an interactive design point of view in such a way as to open up the potential for Flow. This would result not only in happier citizens, but also increase the level of productivity and optimise their performance.

For luxury car companies, it might mean treating customers like club members, giving them access to preferential car parks or even preferential traffic lanes in a given city. For example, in these hard times, how much would London be prepared to rent out its bus lanes to Bentley for? I'm aware that this idea might be very unpopular, but it might in itself trigger off a new way of thinking about cities and traffic that would enhance the luxury experience of the car as well as the flow experience of the other stakeholders (i.e. the total group of citizens).

In the context of Flow, what might an "invisibly perfect" city look, feel and behave like?

Well, continuing with the theme of urban transport... Contrary to current practice in public transport where users relegate control of the vehicle they use to a collective driver - i.e. buses, trams, underground trains, etc. - Flow thinking would almost certainly advocate much higher levels of interactivity between moving citizens and the urban space. Just as your iPhone doesn't take over your journey in information space, so the perfect urban transport system should not take control over your journey in real space, in order to increase citizen happiness and Flow. Instead, just as on the iPhone, design and technology must focus on working seamlessly in the background to make your highly interactive journey smooth, simple and effortless.

Hence, you can be fairly sure that the commercial success or failure of the self-driving vehicles Google has recently been testing will be a factor of the interactivity they still allow users to have with the city. Anyone who's ever sat in the back of a taxi during a traffic jam will recognise that there is little happiness to be gained from handing over total control to someone or something else. Equally, centralised management of vehicle movement is unlikely to yield anything like the same results as peer-to-peer interaction.

Instead, you can imagine a kind of "augmented driving" system that enables drivers to still drive at will, with technology ensuring smooth interaction between vehicles and the city, as well as between each other, so that traffic lights, for example, might be a thing of the past, as cars detect each others' presence and keep a safe distance from each other, despite crossing each others' paths. Just as we currently have net neutrality in terms of data flow, you could set some vehicle algorithms to ensure traffic neutrality, which means, for example, that a user's sudden decision to turn into a road beyond the lane s/he currently occupies would simply activate a "meshing", or "zipper" algorithm between two lanes of traffic. Once such a system were in place, and running safely and effectively, you would start seeing much bigger commercial uptake for narrower vehicles, like the Monotracer cabin-motorbike by Peraves, which has all the interior comfort of a car, albeit that the driver and passenger sit one behind the other, the way they do in a jet fighter airplane. An increase in narrower vehicles, in turn, would increase lane usability, as you get to fit more vehicles within the same lane width. This ensures faster and smoother traffic, and so the system slowly but surely evolves towards increased happiness and Flow as users interact effortlessly with the city space.

Once you 'get' this way of thinking about interactive object design, things like the recently redesigned Routemaster buses, for example, just look like they're missing the point, beautiful and iconic as they may be (believe me, as a designer, I fully appreciate their beauty as well as their iconic status). I cannot help but think that the designers of the original Routemaster would probably be very surprised if they knew we're still using buses at all. I mean, this is 2010... Looking at science fiction movies of the 20s and 30s, like Fritz Lang's Metropolis, we were all supposed to be flying around the city using anti-gravity fields by now... Having said that, it's true that there are some moments of delight to be gotten out of the Routemaster: the simple feeling of freedom you get from hanging off the back of one is wonderful. But how does that compare to the proposition, say, of getting to any destination in London within 10 minutes, or of being able to hold twice as many meetings because the city's design idiosyncracies don't form an obstruction to your day's plan? Even sticking to today's technology, compare the brief moment of joy hanging off the back of a Routemaster on a sunny day with the sheer exhilaration of scooting around the city on a Vespa...

I have focused on urban transport, because it is such an obvious sector open for improvement, and because it illustrates most clearly the lessons that can be learned from interactive design's application to information space, and its direct parallels in the interaction with real space.

Ultimately, however, I believe the lessons hold true for any sector that puts people in a position of interaction with each other, with the space between us and with the constructs we have put in it to live our lives. In all sectors, Flow is achieved when the medium of interactivity itself disappears from the user's awareness, so that s/he can complete a task the way one interacts with, say, an iPhone rather than with an old and clunky operating system.

What are the implications of this? Well, once agility, smooth movement and Flow are achieved in a particular sector, shared physical space users (e.g. citizens) all become much more aware of the creative potential within the space itself, which leads to second and third generations of development that are inconceivable from the point of view of the observer who considers the first generation.

For example, there are today colossal businesses like Twitter, Google and Facebook that rely on opening up the potential for happiness which can be found in an intrinsic feature of information space - searching it, or sharing it, for example - in a way that Tim Berners-Lee couldn't really have conceived of when he designed the http web protocol and the html web development language.

In the same way, augmenting interaction with the city space will quickly open up new opportunities of interaction we have yet to even imagine. Millions of people increased their general level of Flow and happiness with the ease of buying and selling online, using first generation web companies like ebay and Amazon: at that point, in the online world, what could be more satisfying than being able to see every possible version of a product at the click of a mouse? Similarly, the idea of getting to one's destination within 10 minutes from leaving one's home is just the first generation of applications one can associate with augmented Flow of interaction with real space. Compared to what we have today, it would be luxury, and not just of the "invisible perfection" type. But it would be just the beginning.

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