What makes us productive and what makes us stupid

Your working environment has a big impact on your productivity, creativity and happiness. And good user experiences follow the same rules.

The interruptions caused by email and other digital communications reduce your IQ by up to 10 points, and cost large corporations UD$1m in revenue per annum. They also make people unhappy. Among many corporations, Intel has been running a “quiet time” initiative, where every Tuesday morning is set aside for quiet thinking only. No email, no IM, no phone calls, even.

On the flip side, I found interesting research about how corporate environments that provide clear goals, facilitate progress and praise success make people happier, more creative and more productive.

It struck me that most of this is linked to the concept of Flow, proposed by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi. Flow is a state of optimal experience (very closely linked to happiness). If you’ve ever looked up at the clock and realised that an hour or two has rushed past unexpectedly, chances are you were in a state of Flow.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi proposed the idea of Flow

Flow is frequently caused by having clear and worthwhile goals, making visible progress towards those goals, and being appropriately challenged as you go. Almost exactly like that description of the happy and productive working environment.

But how many times have you sat down at your desk expecting to make rewarding progress, only to realise that you have a pile of unread email? Suddenly you’re wading through unexpected issues and problems, and your original goal for the day is pushed further away. That’s a recipe for no flow, and a feeling of frustration. No wonder the Intel pilot group look forward to Tuesday mornings.

Happy interaction

So, if you’re a manager, you need to be shaping your team or organisation to work in a Flow-inducing way.

If you’re an interaction designer, you need to design interfaces to help your users experience Flow. Three fairly plain lessons:

  • Don’t interrupt your users. People using computers are goal directed – they’re online to get a task done. Excessive confirmation dialogs cause frustration. Interstitial and pop-up ads are worse. Flash intros are, mercifully, a thing of the past.  And perhaps the cardinal sin is emailing your customers too much. Why any brand would want to be associated with these negative, frustration-causing events is a mystery to me. “Are users stupid?” some unenlightened designers have been heard to ask. Well, if you keep interrupting them, you’re reducing their IQ.
  • Help your users to accept new ideas. Innovation is a hot topic for corporations looking for an edge. Helping your customers to innovate makes them happy too. Blogger.com helps new users understand blogging and create a blog in astoundingly simple steps. Google Adwords suggests new products and services that are specifically selected to be relevant to the user’s goal. Amazon does the same, and also keeps many of it recommendations for after you’ve made some productive steps towards your goal – it recommends most stuff when you add to basket and when you complete a purchase.
  • Help your users to think creatively. A lot of Web2.0, and the latest thinking in UCD, is about helping people to express themselves by building or creating something. Myspace and Facebook pages and relationships are a labour of love for some. Family trees are loving crafted in Geni. Photobox lets you craft beautiful paper photo albums using custom software. All Flow activities, where users make clear progress towards desirable goals, and learn something on the way.

To be effective interaction designers, we need to be happiness experts. And because the organisation behind the interface will always show through, we need to be happy and work in happy places. Now that’s a goal worth working towards.

4 thoughts on “What makes us productive and what makes us stupid

  • August 11, 2008 at 9:51 am
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    Agree with Anne-Sophie – a lovely article!

    The concept of “Flow” is very important to my team and I during our work day. I find that by breaking tasks down into the right level of granularity, you are able to focus more on the task at hand, have an increased sense of achievement, and you end up being much more productive and effective.

    In terms of user experience for the things we design (small-screen/mobile applications), we take the attitude of producing interfaces which ask the user the minimal number of questions to get to their end goal. We find that by doing so, the user is able to intuitively progress through a series of steps with minimal effort. It sounds obvious, but it’s actually very hard to do when battling against the needs of the commercial world.

  • August 11, 2008 at 10:07 am
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    Thanks, Ribot.

    Your point about granularity is very good – and helpful!

    If you just list your overall goals on your to-do list, you can find that you never get a chance to cross anything off.

    In fact it can stop you dead in your tracks. You can’t work out how to achieve the whole goal at once, so you leave it.

    I’m finding it’s very true working with agile development teams. If you put a big feature into the backlog, it just sort of sits there and people get angry about it. If you break it down into sub-features, the developers can tackle it more readily.

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