"Flow": the iPhone Experience that Sells

For every top download in the App Store, you’ll find a number of similar apps that aren’t doing as well. What is it that separates the high roller apps from the also-rans?

You’ve probably heard of sports figures talk about their peak experiences as “being in the zone.” Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi refers to the experience as “flow”—the “holistic sensation that people feel when they act with total involvement.” In the state of flow, people “become absorbed in their activity.” They experience these subjective benefits:

  • “narrowing the focus of activity”
  • “filtering out irrelevant perceptions and thoughts”
  • “loss of self-consciousness”
  • “responsiveness to clear goals”
  • “a sense of control over the environment”

Amazing Amazon

AmazonAmazonI experience flow when I use the Amazon Mobile app to shop for books. First of all, it’s very easy to do a search. All I have to do is put in a topic, the author’s name, or a portion of the title. The app quickly gives me a list of possibilities with the best matches at the top.

Then, I scan the list of possibilities, reviewing and evaluating titles and authors. This is where I filter out the irrelevant.

I also check out the new and used pricing for the titles I’m interested in, looking for the all-important Amazon discount. Sometimes I’ll find the same book listed more than once, with different prices. I’ve saved up to $50 on the price of a book by doing this.

Finally, since I’m a nut for fast delivery, I signed up for 2-day Prime service. Therefore, I always look for the “Prime” logo next to a book title. I’ll sometimes balance out the extra cost for fast delivery by purchasing a used version of the book I’m interested in. All this gives me a sense of physical and financial control.

Figs. 1 & 2: Left: How fast can I spot the “Prime” logo? Right: How fast can I spot the cheapest used book of the title I want?

The “flow” of games

Games typically score higher on measures related to flow than other apps. When you play a good game, you tend to get absorbed in it, your focus narrows, you lose awareness of yourself and your surroundings, you respond to clear goals, and (as your skill with the game improves) you have a sense of control over the game environment.

Research by Pinch Media tends to support the advantage games have over other apps. The study shows that games get about 10 minutes of use on the first day, gradually decreasing to about 7 minutes per day 60 days later. Utilities, lifestyle, sports, and entertainment apps get about 4 minutes of use the first day, but this remains relatively constant over the next 60 days. So, why do games get more time? Because of the “flow” experience.

The balance of challenge and skill

Research on flow tells us that we not only need to encounter challenges, but we also need the skills necessary to overcome them. If a task is too easy, we don’t get to conquer anything, and we get bored (think of Tic-Tac-Toe). In addition, we might not trust the results. For example, what if Amazon just showed you the best deal without giving you the experience of shopping? Would you feel comfortable clicking the “Buy” button without examining other choices?

If the challenge is too difficult, then we experience frustration, not flow. If a game is incredibly difficult to master, we may not stick with it for very long.

Feel the flow!

Like Amazon.com, the iTunes App Store can produce the experience of flow. It makes one-stop app shopping a manageable challenge, allowing you to spend your time viewing and comparing apps instead of searching for them. The App Store is online window shopping at its best—you can feel the flow.

When you are evaluating a new app, see how well it pulls you out of the daily grind and lets you focus on the activity at hand. Are its goals clear and does it give you a sense of control? These are important questions for consumers and app developers alike.

You have to feel the flow!

Apps that involve the user are successful; the key is the experience of "Flow".
Summer 2009
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