Going with the flow: The psychology of mobile app design

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In psychology, flow, also known as being in the zone, is the mental state in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus: a writer writing an article, a professional athlete competing at peak performance, or even a shopper suddenly convinced to buy that random thing, and have the ability to buy it when the urge strikes. Understanding the flow of a person and how personalized applications and information seamlessly fits into the daily routines of people is quickly becoming a major part of information experience and design.

The idea of flow was originally devised in the 1970's when Mihaly Csíkszentmihályi and his fellow researchers began researching the concept after Csíkszentmihályi became fascinated by artists who would essentially get lost in their work. During the interviews ,several people described their "flow" experiences using the metaphor of a water current carrying them along.

Today, the concept of flow has reappeared, becoming an integral part of modern information and application design. The ability to seamlessly blend digital workflows, information, and other activities into your routine is a big part of how modern apps are developed. Many of the latest apps, particularly those developed for wearable applications such as the Apple Watch, are attempting to integrate various bits of information into our daily activities in the attempt to create the optimal experience of its users.

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Among those at the forefront of this trend is Amazon, which has taken the idea of flow and prepared it specifically for consumers who are looking to buy the things they want when they want them, whether or not they even realize it. Amazon has long provided contextual suggestions for various products based on its customers' browsing history. They then took this concept a step further, adding a "Showrooming" capability for users of the company's mobile app to examine merchandise in a traditional brick-and-mortar retail stores or other offline settings to easily buy an item online, sometimes at a lower price. Not content with simply providing an easy way to buy things more cheaply, Amazon's Dash service allows users to scan, speak, or even simply hit a button to request the products that customers commonly order with the simplicity of a single-function, web-connected button. This brings me to Amazon's latest app, for the Apple Watch, which takes the idea of integrating Amazon's services into your daily flow a step further by providing a simple voice-enabled interface to find the things you want regardless of where you happen to be.

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Amazon certainly isn't alone in wanting to fit into the flow of your life. Google has several services aimed at making your online life more effective and efficient. At the heart of this focus is its Google Now service, which claims to "bring you the information you want, when you need it." The service looks closely at the various information you consume, from your location to your search history to even your calendars, and attempts to give you suggestions when you might need them, or before you even realize you need them. Where did I park my car? No problem, Google will tell you. Are you looking for the perfect bowl of ramen for lunch? No worries, Google already knows you enjoy ramen, there is a shop 100 feet away, and your lunch break is in 10 minutes. Even more recently, Google released a Google Inbox service aimed at optimizing your email and messages using a similar tactic.

At any given moment we are bombarded with a massive amount of information. Psychologists have found that a person can attend to only a limited amount of information at any given time. According to Csikszentmihalyi's 2004 TED talk, that number is about "110 bits of information per second." That may seem like a lot of information, but simple daily tasks take quite a lot of information. Just decoding speech takes about 60 bits of information per second. That is why when having a conversation one cannot focus as much attention on other things.

Over the last few years there has been much discussion about "Artificial Intelligence." Elon Musk compared building artificial intelligence to "Summoning The Demon" and others have described it as being among the greatest achievements of mankind. But regardless of where you stand on the debate, the reality is that we as humans are being asked to process more and more information. We are quickly reaching a level of saturation that will require new ways for us to process and understand the massive amount of information being delivered to us. Among the biggest opportunities is the ability for the systems we use most commonly to go beyond a simplistic one-size-fits-all approach to a more intelligent, customized approach which augments our physical existence yet fits within the particular limitations we bring as humans. So rather than focus on the creation of self-aware Artificial Intelligence, the first great step may be as simple as augmented intelligence, or the ability to improve our own cognitive abilities though the use of targeted, personalized flows of information.

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