Discuss: If you’re in the web performance business, you’re in the happiness business.

It’s ironic that I’m writing this post at a time when my own flow has been seriously compromised by the arrival of my third child, who arrived a couple of weeks ago. But I’m going to do my best. Stick with me. 🙂

I’ve written about flow in the past. It’s a fascinating topic — one that I keep coming back to as I discover new (or new to me) research into it. Last year–

Sorry. Crying baby. What was I talking about? Oh yeah. Flow. What was that about irony?

Last week, I was up late (again: baby) and decided to watch a documentary called Happy, which, as you might guess, is an exploration of the factors that truly make us truly happy. I won’t give away all the secrets to happiness here, but I want to share one line from the movie that jumped out:

“People who experience flow on a regular basis
are happier than people who don’t.”

This was really interesting to me. In the past I’ve talked about research that links flow, in web terms, to conversions, pageviews, and revenue, but I’ve never explored the blunt statement that flow = happiness. So I decided to do some digging with this angle in mind.

What is flow?

First, let’s back up for a minute and define our terms. In web performance, when I talk about flow, I’m talking about one of two things:

A. Flow as a user’s path through a site or application.
B. Flow as a descriptor for the seamlessness of a sequence of actions.

Ideally, you want to experience as much as possible of flow B while you’re experiencing flow A.

Mihaly Csíkszentmihályi (considered by many to be pioneer of the concept of flow) lists the ideal components of flow in his 1998 book Finding Flow: The Psychology of Engagement with Everyday Life:

  • Clear goals that, while challenging, are still attainable.
  • Strong concentration and focused attention.
  • The activity is intrinsically rewarding.
  • Feelings of serenity; a loss of feelings of self-consciousness.
  • Timelessness; a distorted sense of time; feeling so focused on the present that you lose track of time passing.
  • Immediate feedback.
  • Knowing that the task is doable; a balance between skill level and the challenge presented.
  • Feelings of personal control over the situation and the outcome.
  • Lack of awareness of physical needs.
  • Complete focus on the activity itself.

What gets in the way of flow?

If, like most people, you live a busy urban life — particularly one that involves new babies — achieving flow has countless challenges from the time you get up until you go to bed:

  • Sitting in traffic
  • Workplace interruptions (phone calls, people stopping at your desk, last-minute tasks, impromptu meetings)
  • Standing in lines (Side note: As an exercise, count how many lines you stand in on a given weekday.)
  • Waiting for elevators
  • Texts, email, and other mobile beeps
  • More sitting in traffic
  • Bizarre inexplicable demands of small children
  • Sudden random diaper failures

This list was disturbingly easy to write, and I’m sure I could go on. To summarize, achieving a state of flow is hard work.

Now let’s hone in on our area of focus: web performance.

As I’ve written in the past, we humans are hard-wired to perform tasks seamlessly. That’s because for hundreds of thousands of years, our brains have evolved to help us carry out day-to-day tasks — from building a fire to planting a field — that are comprised of a series of minute actions that flow virtually without interruption from one to the next.

It’s only in the past forty years, with the advent of computers, that we’ve imposed a new set of demands on our brains. As most of us are painfully aware, instead of offering a series of smoothly sequential actions, human-computer interaction is characterized by lag, downtime, and restarts.

In my travels, I encounter people who are skeptical about the impact of lag, downtime, and restarts on productivity and other key performance indicators. The argument I hear is that most people do, in fact, adjust to poor performance.

As it turns out, these people may be somewhat correct, but they may also be focusing on the wrong part of the picture.

Questioning our assumptions: Do delays really hurt productivity?

I recently came across a really interesting study into workplace interruptions: Temporal factors in mental work: Effects of interrupted activities (Fred R. H. Zijlstra and Robert A. Roe, 1999). In it, groups of workers were subjected to various disruptions in the course of their day-to-day responsibilities, and then were measured in terms of both their productivity and their self-reported state of mind. While this study focused on general workplace interruptions, with only some attention given to human-computer interaction, there were some fascinating findings that are arguably relevant to web performance.

Finding 1: Participants developed strategies that let them deal effectively with interruptions and maintain their productivity.

This research suggests that, at least for some workers in some environments, not only do they learn how to cope with interruptions, they may even strive to overcompensate for their potential performance decline.

Finding 2: However, this coping mechanism is achieved at the expense of higher psychological costs.

Cumulatively, interruptions had a negative impact on emotion and well-being. Participants ultimately needed to increase the amount of effort required to perform the same tasks.

Finding 3: Over time, interruptions affected participants’ ability and willingness to resume work and take on new tasks.

Interruptions seemed to have a cumulative effect. When the number of interruptions grew, the resumption time (i.e. the time needed to re-start the task) became disproportionally longer. The participants seemed to lose motivation and develop mental fatigue.

What does this mean in web performance terms?

It’s possible that people can develop coping strategies for dealing with application delays, and that these coping strategies can allow them to maintain productivity in the short term. But the missing ingredient here is flow. And without flow, eventually our sense of motivation and well-being suffers.

It’s also eye-opening to think about our small world of application performance as just one part of a bigger world. As I mentioned at the top of this post, our days are filled with challenges to flow. Poor web performance is just one factor, but it is a significant factor. Consider the cumulative effects of lack of flow in the fast-paced world most of us live in.

As countless studies have proven, human beings are really good at convincing ourselves that we understand what makes us happy, and we’re really bad at actually realizing what makes us happy. Because of this, it’s easy to kid ourselves that, because our productivity is more or less the same — and because we place a great deal of value on productivity — somehow this equates to happiness.

In other words, we can convince ourselves that we’re fine — or if you’re an employer, you can convince yourself that your workers are fine — when perhaps we’re not.

Here’s where I’m tempted to make a grandiose claim.

I’d love to close with something like “if you’re in the web performance business, you’re in the happiness business”, but I can sense the imminent mockery of my colleagues here at Strangeloop. And in all truth, I don’t believe that human beings have that much power to make each other happy.

But I do believe that, if you’re in the performance business, you’re in the flow business. By improving flow, we’re helping to remove an obstacle, and in doing this, in our own small way we’re allowing people to find their own happiness. I do believe this. Let the mockery commence. 🙂

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