In his book Flow, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi describes a state of optimal experience, where people are so engaged in the activity they’re doing that the rest of the world falls away. He defines this state as:
"the mental state of operation in which the person is fully immersed in what he or she is doing by a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and success in the process of the activity"
The research that went into Flow is interesting for several reasons. First, Csikszentmihalyi was observing successful people, not troubled ones. The prevailing strategy in psychology up until that time (and even, somewhat, to this day) was to do research on interesting but troubled people in the hopes of learning what not to do or what to avoid. Csikszentmihalyi took the opposite approach: he researched highly-functioning people to find out what they do in hopes the rest of us might replicate it.
The second reason Csikszentmihalyi’s research is interesting is because it actually does apply to everyone, not just the Einsteins of the world. Many people reach the flow state in their lives, we just don’t do it that much. What separates super successful people from us normal folk is that they reach flow more consistently, more often. In other words, flow is not a super power, it’s just more elusive than we would like it to be.
As software and hardware get easier to use, we can focus more on the activity we’re doing and less on the technology we do it with. The Apple iPad, which is already revolutionary because it replaces the laptop keyboard & screen with a single large, multi-touch interface, is the latest example. By removing hardware the iPad has the potential to get users closer to their activity than ever before. Instead of manipulating windows, memorizing keyboard shortcuts, plugging in external mice, etc, people can now focus more energy on the activity they’ll be doing with the device.
Early reports are that this phenomenon is real and affecting. Steven Fry, writing in Time Magazine:
"I had been prepared for a smooth feel, for a bright screen and the "immersive" experience everyone had promised. I was not prepared, though, for how instant the relationship I formed with the device would be."
When design reaches a certain threshold of simplicity it changes our relationship to it. It’s not clear how this works, as it doesn’t happen very often, but at some point we start thinking about what we’re doing differently. The design we’re using fades away, our experience improves dramatically, and the activity we’re doing becomes primary. This is as it should be. And if we’re really lucky we take another small step toward the ultimate goal: the goal of finding flow.