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CYBERCULTURE | Q & A

What Is This Thing Called Flow? Think Nirvana on the Web

July 06, 1998|JOHN GEIRLAND and EVA SONESH-KEDAR | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

You've managed to get the kids into bed by 9 p.m. Instead of settling in for an evening of TV, you go online and begin navigating through cyberspace. Following one link to another, you begin to lose yourself. . . . After what seems like minutes you glance at the clock. It's 2 a.m.

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The time warp you've fallen into, say Vanderbilt University marketing professors Donna Hoffman and Thomas Novak, is "flow," a psychological state of high involvement, skill and playfulness that may have important implications for online advertising and e-commerce. Building on the early flow research of psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Hoffman and Novak recently surveyed 2,000 online users to put the flow phenomenon on a scientific footing.

Hoffman and Novak (a married couple) established Project 2000 (http://www2000.ogsm.vanderbilt.edu) at Vanderbilt University in 1994 to research the commercialization of the Web. In April, the two generated worldwide headlines--and hate mail--when they published an article in Science showing that African Americans, particularly students, were less likely to have Internet access than whites.

Hoffman and Novak were interviewed as they settled in for the summer as visiting scholars at Interval Research, billionaire Paul Allen's Palo Alto research and development lab.

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Question: What is "flow" in the context of the online experience?

Novak: Flow is what happens to you during network navigation. When you are completely focused on the activity at hand and your skills are perfectly attuned to the challenges of the online environment, there is a loss of consciousness about what's happening in the external world. The other thing that clearly happens is time distortion. At the end of the experience you have this sense of satisfaction and fun. Play is an important part of flow.

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Q: Why would online advertisers want to stimulate flow experiences in consumers?

Hoffman: The implications of flow go beyond advertising and are even broader for online transactions and purchases. If the online experience isn't compelling, people aren't going to stay very long on the Web in general, and your site in particular. A consequence of flow is that people feel, "Gee, that felt so good, I want to do it again." So flow may be important for encouraging repeat visits or repeat purchase behavior.

Novak: Our most recent research finds that people who are in flow while on the Web are more likely to use the Web instead of watching TV. So we expect these consumers to become increasingly outside the reach of TV advertising.

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Q: You've said that your next step is to study individual sites to determine which design features promote flow. Any ideas so far?

Novak: One of the important components in our flow model is perceived control. One of the exciting things about the Web is that people are active and in control, so users have to be able to navigate through a site in a manner that doesn't force them down a particular path. The navigation has to give the user control and choice, has to be nonlinear and non-hierarchical. The implications go beyond Web design principles. If you facilitate people being able to search and browse a site, then they're going to be much more likely to buy. It could be that you would be more likely to move to the purchase click in flow.

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Q: Isn't using flow to encourage purchasing behavior exploitative?

Hoffman: [Laughter] We look at flow as providing more enjoyable opportunities for getting the business of business done. I certainly don't see us turning into a society of automatons in front of our computers all day, forced to buy things because we have figured out how to put people in a trance-like state of flow. Flow is not a trance-like state; it's actually an incredibly enriching, cognitively alive state.

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Q: Should we be encouraging people to spend hours online? Would flow encourage addiction to the Internet?

Hoffman: Web surfing is like any other behavior that can become addicting. If a person has an addictive personality, they can become hooked on the Internet. But there's nothing in our research that suggests there is anything inherently addicting about the Internet--any more than television, books or other sorts of media activities. I don't think having compelling online experiences is a negative thing. Why wouldn't we want people to enjoy themselves? The online flow experience has positive consequences for society.

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Q: What is the biggest mistake that Web designers make?

Hoffman: We have this incredible argument with people who are designing Web sites that are completely out of control, in the sense of being very graphics-intensive. These sites may look very pretty on a [high bandwidth] T1 line, but they would never get anyone into a flow experience because they take too damn long to download. You have to keep it simple, it needs to load quickly, and it has to be easy for people to find their way around.

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