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Using flow principles to introduce addiction to mobile or Web app


Flow is a well-known concept in psychology, invented by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and published in 1975. It describes the state of losing yourself to a task; basically losing the sense of time and being just very immersed and focused on what you are doing. While many professionals (including myself!) would kill to have flow 100% of the time, because it would greatly enhance their productivity (and true professionals always want to get things done!), it is also important for UX designers and software developers who can use it to enhance the success of their applications, especially given 80% of users are likely to drop after registering.

How to improve the flow of users?

To improve the likelihood of flow for your users, follow these principles:

  1. The user has a clearly defined, simple goal
  2. He or she intuitively understands how to reach that goal
  3. The goal must be achieved with minimal effort
  4. He or she must immediately know if success or not
  5. There must be immediate transition to a new task

(I compiled them from Csikszentmihalyi’s ideas and this article on gambling.)

Let’s use Tinder as an example.

First, I use Tinder to meet a girl (or the girl). That equals a clearly defined goal. Second, straight after logging in I see a picture with ‘❤’ or ‘X’ as choices – there is no need to explain what to do; in other words the app is intuitive. Third, all I need to do is swipe left or right, i.e. use minimal effort to get a small reward each time. In addition, it’s much easier to use Tinder than go out to the real world to meet people which would be an alternative way to accomplish my goal (=minimal effort). I will instantly know if I was luck because the system alerts of matches as they happen (=instant gratification). Whether or not there is a match, I’m instantly shown another choice that follows the same simple pattern (=ludic loop). Although I rarely get matches, that’s okay because I instantly get a new chance (=there is no way to exit the loop).

As a result, I am addicted.

A few notes on the applicability of flow principles

1. The size of the reward is not important at all; much more important is you get it straight away (=principle of instant gratification). So, if you’re providing one reward of size X, it can make more sense to split it into n parts, so that reward size becomes X/n.

2. It’s irrelevant whether or not the method applied is the best method to reach the goal. In fact, I’m a firm believer in that Tinder (or online dating in general) doesn’t work too well, because you need to meet people in person to see if there is chemistry or not (the app won’t tell you that, and it’s the most important factor to me). So why do I use Tinder? Because all that reasoning takes place in a high level of thinking (=high effort), and the app overrides it by giving me instant rewards with low effort. So, although I know it’s not efficient, that doesn’t matter because I get some enjoyment over it. Makes sense? That’s how we people are!

3. As a corollary to the previous point, you can understand that splitting the effort X into smaller increments of n/X can result in a situation where the invididual is using more time in doing those n increments than he would be in just doing the task X. The most clever people use this feature to motivate themselves to work – they say “I only do this very little task”, and end up doing a lot more. But this also has implications to mobile and Web developers, and also in crowdsourcing because it effectively enables a micro-task design beat a full-task design in the quantity of output.


The principles laid out here apply to social media feeds. Just think about it: every post gives you small small sartisfaction. Or, rather, their marginal utility is distributed randomly which makes it exciting to you, the player – you know that the post quality varies, so you might hit a “jackpot” of finding something interesting like a job opportunity, or then simply miss — either way, you get the feedback instantly. And the effort is marginal: just like the pigeons in the famous Skinner’s box, you only need to “pull a lever” (i.e., scroll down). Because you don’t succeed every time, you pull more levers. Very easy, very addictive. And there’s pretty much no way to avoid it, because it utilizes an universal and inherent features of the human psyche.

Published inenglish