When was the last time that you were “in the zone”? Do you remember being so absorbed in an activity that you forgot about the outside world, time seemed to fade away, and you felt invigorated? Maybe you’re an avid tennis player and remember a rigorous game when you seemed on fire. Or perhaps you’re a musician and recall feeling as if the notes were flowing through your fingertips.

Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls this state of optimal experience flow. In his research, he found that musicians, composers, athletes, and even chess players all used the same words to explain their enjoyment. Csikszentmihalyi identified 8 elements that contribute to a flow experience:

  • Clear goals
  • Concentration
  • A loss of self-consciousness
  • Lost sense of time
  • Immediate feedback
  • An adequate level of challenge
  • A feeling of control
  • Intrinsically rewarding

Flow certainly has its roots in the physical world, but it happens on the web as well. Hoffman and Novak describe flow in the digital world as:

The state occurring during network navigation which is characterized by a seamless sequence of responses facilitated by machine interactivity, is intrinsically enjoyable, is accompanied by a loss of self-consciousness, and is self-reinforcing.

Search is particularly ripe for facilitating flow. Search results respond to the user as the user responds to the search results, entering a dance as each influences the other in an ongoing, two-step tango.

But that’s when everything goes right. Far too often, things go wrong. The user can’t figure out how to express his information need, or the search engine can’t find the right documents. What then?

Above all, users need to feel like they’re always headed in the right direction. There are four principles than can guide us in designing search experiences that always provide a next step for a users, helping them enter a state of flow.

Help users form their query

It’s easier to pick something from of a list than it is too pull it out of then air, so use the power of suggestion to help users get off on the right foot. Autocomplete, bookmarks, and saved searches can all help.

Help users review the results

Once the user has entered the initial query, they’ll then (hopefully) have a list of results to review. The most important consideration is to have descriptive titles for each result (hint: filenames usually make for poor titles). “Hit highlighting” can help the eye quickly parse the results for important words, and grouping similar results together has been shown to improve productivity.

Help users reformulate their query

After reviewing the results, the user may find the answer he’s looking for, click on one of the results for more information, give up unsuccessfully, or — what often happens — try a slightly different search. Showing related searches, providing sort controls, and offering faceted navigation can help make sure the user always has a way forward.

Help users recover gracefully

The worse thing that can ever happen in a search interface is for there to not be any search results. Try everything to avoid it. Automatic spelling corrections, stemming, lemmatisation and other query expansion techniques can all help alleviate this situation. Just be sure to clearly notify the user if you change their query without asking them.

In the words of Csikszentmihalyi:

The combination of all these elements causes a sense of deep enjoyment that is so rewarding people feel that expending a great deal of energy is worthwhile simply to be able to feel it.

The Slides

I presented this material as a talk at a UX Brighton meetup on February 8, 2010. Thanks to Harry Brignull for inviting me to speak alongside Tony Russell-Rose and Glenn Jones.

Originally published on the Twigkit blog.

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