Reduce Noise to Encourage Flow

By reducing or removing the noise from our experiences, we can help users get things done in a focused, efficient way. UX Booth Editor in Chief Andrew Maier tells us why this matters, and how we can facilitate a more peaceful, frictionless user experience.

Even before the advent of mobile design—with its due consideration of loud, hurried contexts—the signs were everywhere: we live in an age of information overload. Be it email, text messages, or the multitude of other notifications, not an hour goes by using a modern device when that device isn’t calling out for its user’s attention. But should it? Users aren’t air traffic controllers, after all. By reducing and/or removing noise from our experiences we can help users get things done in a focused, efficient way.


Nothing inspires quite like nature.

I grew up in a small suburb of Atlanta: Jonesboro, Georgia. Built to house those who would make their living at Atlanta’s new airport, Jonesboro was, at the time, replete with pine forests and grassy fields (many of which my brother and I took the liberty of exploring). Indeed, some of my fondest childhood memories involve telling stories and making up games during those quiet Autumn days.

Years later, I moved to the “big” city to attend Georgia Tech. This marked a radical departure from the environment I was used to because both the quantity and quality of activities available to me increased. On the whole, there was less signal and more noise. I quickly learned that serenity – once afforded to me naturally—was going to take hard work.

Develop a routine

So I developed a routine. I literally traded “quiet” periods during the day for “loud” periods in the evenings. I studied between classes and then, in the evenings, practiced bass guitar in my dorm room. I played music that was far too loud for my neighbors’ comfort. I took up digital and analog photography and wrote a whole bunch of poetry. Once I found it, my new routine reduced the “noise” that I had earlier perceived.

Liz Danzico recently ruminated on a quote by the artist/producer Brian Eno, who bought up a similar point in his interview with the New York Times. He goes on to say:

In my normal life I’m a very unadventurous person. I take the same walk every day and I eat in the same restaurants, and often eat exactly the same things in the same restaurants. I don’t adventure much except when I’m in the studio, and then I only want to adventure. I cannot bear doing something again, or thinking that I’m doing something again.

Brian Eno

It appears that a considered calm is closely connected with not only our desire, but our ability to create. Once we arrange the elements of our day to follow a “routine,” they fade into the background and allow us to get to work. Come to think of it, that’s precisely why office environments are the way they are; they’re designed to reduce noise by imposing a system. Only then, it appears, can the real work happen.

Hold it right there

Except when it doesn’t. Although office environments are designed to encourage creativity, their inhabitants can occasionally hinder it. Joel Spolsky explains:

We all know that knowledge workers work best by getting into “flow”, also known as being “in the zone”, where they are fully concentrated on their work and fully tuned out of their environment. They lose track of time and produce great stuff through absolute concentration. This is when they get all of their productive work done. Writers, programmers, scientists, and even basketball players will tell you about being in the zone.

The trouble is, getting into “the zone” is not easy…it’s so easy to get knocked out of [it]. Noise, phone calls, going out for lunch, having to drive 5 minutes to Starbucks for coffee, and interruptions by coworkers — ESPECIALLY interruptions by coworkers — all knock you out of the zone.

Joel Spolsky

Getting into the swing of things takes time. Further, once users reach that intense state of concentration, the slightest interruption can derail them. As interaction designers, then, it’s obvious that designing the simplest, quietest experience possible is paramount.

Turn on the flow

A recent stab at facilitating flow (encouraging a routine) was a feature called Spaces, developed by Apple for Mac OS X 10.6. Spaces allowed users to arrange applications so that they laid out across multiple desktops or “spaces.” The idea was that users would create a space for work, a space for play, etc.

A screenshot of Apple Spaces

Spaces, available in Mac OS X 10.6, allowed users to group related applications on their own desktop, or space, to facilitate focus.

Photo by Ian Dick

Although the sprit of the idea was sound, the implementation was uninspired. Linux users had had “spaces” for quite a while, and (speaking as a former one myself) realized that it wasn’t anything to write home about, let alone re-implement. Worse still, Apple’s version was no easier to learn or incorporate into one’s workflow than its Linux counterpart.

Luckily, Apple’s changed things for the better. In OS X 10.7, they threw out the concept of Spaces entirely, instead focusing on full-screen applications. These work much the same way – users concentrate on one task, or set of tasks – without all of the machinations required of Spaces. What more, full-screen, sovereign applications work much like their iOS counterparts. They encourage users to dedicate their attention to one given thing at a time. Simple. Quiet.

Reduce the (relative) noise

There is a counter to this, though. With the immensely strong “signal” provided by full screen applications, there’s less noise overall, which makes users far more attuned to noise when it occurs.

Once again, I’ll pick on Apple. In the previous version of iOS, anyone could have their entire flow broken by a mere text message (or, in this case, a javascript notification). Those who used iOS 4 and experienced even a handful of notifications could tell you that this was quite a “loud” treatment.

A javascript popup message in iOS 4

You didn’t want to read this article, did you?

Yet again, though, Apple presented a more considered approach in its iteration on the theme. Today, notifications appear in a small bar across top of the screen. If a user wishes to learn more, they simply swipe the notification to give it their full attention.

A notification message in iOS 5

iOS 5 Notifications. Cool, Calm, Collected.

The natural question one might ask, then, is: “Okay, if we want encourage flow, should we just remove all notifications?” To borrow a quote the good guys at 37 Signals: “it depends”. What’s the context of use? Facebook, for example, uses contextually appropriate notifications. Because most people browsing that site want to know if something’s changed while they’re using it, Facebook displays notifications in real time. Although a constantly updating stream of notifications might seem like overkill, it actually aides users in their goal as they use the site.

A screenshot of Facebook's notification design

Facebook users can literally see the community update the site in realtime.

This one goes to 11…does yours?

Today, people use software to do everything from sharing highly processed photos to managing projects. While some goals require more concentration than others, all users benefit from ease of use and the encouragement of flow. To that end, we as interaction designers should reduce the volume of the experiences we create. Two common UX adages set the stage in our quest for simplicity:

  • Make it usable. After all, “Don’t Make Me Think” has almost become a rallying cry for our industry. (It’s a misnomer, of course. We actually want users to think, just not about the interface itself.)
  • Make it learnable. UX designers perform ethnographic research, card sorts, etc. in order to design things that are, at the very least, intuitive. If we can’t make them immediately obvious, we should make them learnable so that users can develop a routine.

Both of these benefit the end user because, for better or worse, all users will spend precious moments learning how to use an application before they are able to accomplish anything with it.

After you meet the baseline, after you craft an ambient experience, stop and listen. Is your experience loud or soft? If it strikes a chord you should reconsider the role that notifications play in facilitating flow. Your users will thank you for it.

Related Reading

About the Author

Andrew Maier

Andrew is a lifelong student of the design community, who co-founded the design publication UX Booth in 2008 to share his journey. He currently serves as its Editor-in-Chief. When he's not heading user-centered design initiatives for clients, Andrew dabbles in civic design. He lives in Seattle's Capitol Hill neighborhood.

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14 Comments

  • Gail Swanson Reply

    I’ve recently begun looking for ways to reduce the noise in my own environment to help myself get into ‘flow’ and stay there longer. Thanks for presenting the idea of applying this approach to my design work. If I am struggling to ignore the noise, I should be mindful of the noise I bring to the user.

  • Mark MacKay Reply

    Interesting and thoughtful article. I enjoyed how you wove past and present and ended up in tech. Cool. Your writing about process and flow reminded me of “Daybook: The Journey of an Artist,” a memoir by sculptor Ann Truitt. She details a daily struggle between creative live and chores. I found her writing insightful and instructive. You might, too.

  • Emma Dong Reply

    Very well written post. I believe nowadays most people are struggling with information overload and noise from tech. We love using these high tech products, while we also lose control of our flow. Reducing noise in design is not only an advance in tech development, but also shows care for human being’s life.

  • Jarod Online Reply

    Great job man, and I learned something in real life about this post: take notice of the things that distract you, or could potentially distract you; and from now on, learn to sound out distractions when in public places.

  • Marco Reply

    Brilliant stuff. What you say about the most intense era of mankind is true. Check out this video, which isn’t directly related to what you write about, but it’s a great video nonetheless, which brings up the subject of how we are educating our children through this intense period of mankind.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zDZFcDGpL4U

  • Jeff Reply

    Completely agree on the overload of notifications. I actually just released an app that helps you reduce and prioritize which notifications you hear.

    Check it out at: http://ultimatemobilenotifier.com

  • Robert Reply

    I really like the GNOME Shell way. Use an app per virtual desktop and notifications are hidden in a auto-hidden bar on the bottom. Keeps you focused on your task and keeps all updates reachable.

  • Patryk Cichocki Reply

    Thank you for such an inspirational post. This really spoke to me :) I read it yesterday and still think about it.

  • Andrew Maier Reply

    Thanks for the feedback, guys! Sorry for the late response.

    Re: Gail’s “If I am struggling to ignore the noise, I should be mindful of the noise I bring to the user.” I completely agree.

    Re: Mark’s “Daybook: The Journey of an Artist” I’m adding that to my reading list!

    Re: Marco’s video: I was just discussing this topic the other day.

    Re: Jeff’s app: That looks cool! Are you doing an iPhone version?

  • sheff Reply

    A lot of distractions these days seem to come from the amount of e-communication, particularly social media. I find myself trying to implement my own personal strategy for dealing with this. Part of my strategy is keeping everything I can web based. So when I want to focus I simply close my “communication” browser down. When I set aside time away from email/twitter/yammer etc I finally find flow (I’m engaged in what I’m doing and time flies by). This is when I am most productive.

  • Marcello Reply

    “Although office environments are designed to encourage creativity”

    really?
    i really think that whoever designed the place where i work had the clear goal of instigating mass murder sprees… ;)

    M

  • Andrew Maier Reply

    Hey Marcello,

    I know what you mean! Honestly, though, office environments (and the structure around them…for example, dress codes) are typically designed with good intentions. They’re supposed to help people focus on what’s important. All subjective, of course. :)

  • Tamra Reply

    Found this very interesting reading. I’ve been on a couple of “educational” websites lately, but hadn’t realized until I read this that my irritation with them was because they had some kind of distractions that interrupted the flow for me. I’m now going to have to go back to those sites to see exactly what they were doing that was knocking me out of the learning experience — I want to make sure I avoid whatever they were doing in any sites I work on.

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