From Wikipedia Flow (psychology):

Flow is the mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity. In essence, flow is characterized by complete absorption in what one does.

Conditions for flow:

A flow state can be entered while performing any activity, although it is most likely to occur when one is wholeheartedly performing a task or activity for intrinsic purposes. Passive activities like taking a bath or even watching TV usually don’t elicit flow experiences as individuals have to actively do something to enter a flow state.

It also talks about the conditions required to achieve the flow state:

  • One must be involved in an activity with a clear set of goals and progress. This adds direction and structure to the task.
  • The task at hand must have clear and immediate feedback. This helps the person negotiate any changing demands and allows them to adjust their performance to maintain the flow state.
  • One must have a good balance between the perceived challenges of the task at hand and their own perceived skills. One must have confidence in one's ability to complete the task at hand.

These all sound like good UX design principles to me, and the FCQ (Flow Condition Questionnaire) seems to be an equivalent or parallel measure of usability because it looks at the characteristics of user behaviour/perception that relate to an engaged user (maybe except for High perceived challenges and skills):

  • Knowing what to do
  • Knowing how to do it
  • Knowing how well you are doing
  • Knowing where to go (if navigation is involved)
  • High perceived challenges
  • High perceived skills
  • Freedom from distractions

I would be interested to know whether anyone has used a general usability questionnaire and compared it side-by-side with the results of the flow state analysis.

  • I can be engaged in something without achieving "flow" or the "alpha state". Imho, are they equivalent? No. Jun 2, 2014 at 22:45
  • I can enter a state of "flow" as defined above without any of the above conditions (from the "flow theory") and without "user engagement". I guess the theory doesn't apply to everyone :-) Jun 2, 2014 at 22:49
  • Perhaps this is the difference between average user engagement and 'high' user engagement?
    – Michael Lai
    Jun 2, 2014 at 23:21
  • According to the researcher most active in the investigation of user engagement (UE), UE and flow are not the same thing. See page 24 for a comparison of flow and UE. This paper describes a comparison of UE and Flow measurement scales. They conclude the two constructs are distinct. Oct 26, 2014 at 11:25

2 Answers 2


Flow and good UX are clearly linked in some ways, but to an extent you are mixing apples with bananas.

Distinguish between engagement and immersion. The latter is more in tune with a flow experience.

Usability, which I define as a measure of the resources expanded while using a system (cognitive or physical), it typically assessed under task-based scenarios. The general idea is that users have some goal or need, and how usable a system is depends on how easy is it for them to achieve their goal. But easiness in the flow framework does not correspond to flow; with easiness you find apathy, boredom and relaxation.

The flow graph

One argument will be that games have a far better potential for a flow experience than most interactive systems. For flow, you need manageable challenges; for usability, you need easy ones.

From a cognitive perspective, flow requires conscious and moderate cognitive load (due to previously acquired skills), which lead to increasing skills or knowledge (strengthened neural pathways) that in turn provide the basis for harder (but now moderate) challenges (and the loop goes on). Most interactive systems strive at bringing users to a mastery level as quickly as possible - there is hardly ever the aim of providing increasingly more challenging, yet manageable tasks. If anything, most interactive systems can offer a flow experience while users learn, which most designs try to make as quick and easy as possible. Being seen that way, usability is counter flow.

Perhaps not the most appropriate of examples, but a system involving low-to-moderate usability (like Photoshop) can provide users with a multitude of flow opportunities, whereas systems with great usability (MailChimp) can not even tickle flow.

The obvious exceptions would be systems that satisfy creativity needs. As defined by Universal Principles of design1:

Creativity is the level in the hierarchy where all needs have been satisfied, and people begin interacting with the design in innovative ways. The design, having satisfied all other needs, is now used to create and explore areas that extend both the design and the person using the design. Designs at this level are perceived to be of the highest value, and often achieve cult-like loyalty among users.

But only a few system address such need, and perhaps importantly, both usability and proficiency precede:

The design hierarchy of need from Universal Principles of design

I should and would extend this answer in the coming days.

1William Lidwell, Kritina Holden, Jill Butler (2003) Universal Principles of Design: 100 Ways to Enhance Usability, Influence Perception, Increase Appeal, Make Better Design Decisions, and Teach Through Design, : Rockport Publishers.

  • It feels like the concept of flow is an overlap between aspects of usability and user engagement, in that the interaction needs to be accessible but also of interest to the user. I think you can think about complexity in terms of a workflow that is not optimal versus a rich interaction that is built upon multiple groupings of simple modules. Looking forward to further thoughts from you on this topic.
    – Michael Lai
    Jun 3, 2014 at 4:39

Quoting Measuring User Engagement, Mounia Lalmas:

In the online world, user engagement refers to the quality of the user experience that emphasizes the positive aspects of the interaction with a web application and, in particular, the phenomena associated with wanting to use that application longer and frequently.

From this definition it appears there is a correlation between "flow" and "user engagement" but no direct requirement that one mandates the other in either direction (a bi-directional requirement between the two is necessary for equivalence).

  • So which of the conditions/criteria do you feel relates most to user engagement?
    – Michael Lai
    Jun 2, 2014 at 23:22
  • The mainly the first one of three (from the Wikipedia quote) and sometimes the second and in addition the fun element. An experience can be stressful (e.g. an exam) and lead to a flow, yet the user won't want to return. Jun 2, 2014 at 23:27
  • The third criteria about achieving flow is getting the balance between the task at hand and skill required balanced. So I guess if students feel that exams are stressful, then it is the fault with the education system? Flow should not lead to a stressful situation, and I don't think a user who is stressed will be fully engaged either.
    – Michael Lai
    Jun 2, 2014 at 23:46
  • In my opinion, flow doesn't lead to, flow is a result. Reading the definition again, flow is supposed to include enjoyment, so perhaps that wasn't a good example, even though the other parameters of the definition can still be fulfilled. Jun 2, 2014 at 23:51

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.