It is not particularly difficult to find an answer to the question of what User Flow is. User Flow is a block diagram that visualizes the actions a user must take to achieve an objective or to perform specific tasks using an application.
In other words, it's a kind of graphic path that a user needs to follow to buy a product from an online store, for example.
The importance of User Flow(s)
It would seem that User Flow is an approach, a method, a tool that's not really important. The more apparent issues, such as layout or color scheme, seem to be more critical. They're not the only ones. Designers often give higher priority status to information architecture as well. Designing a smooth and intuitive User Flow often receives little attention. And it certainly deserves it.
Ignoring User Flow isn't profitable. And this is definitely not a recommendable approach. Actually, ignoring User Flow can be considered malpractice.
We can argue about what users expect most from an application. Its ease of use, intuitiveness, and speed with which they can achieve objectives – these components make up the positive impressions – are always at the top of users' lists.
Even the prettiest, most visually pleasing application won't be enthusiastically received if its use is associated with difficulties or inconvenience. Which is precisely the kind of Bad User Experience that User Flow is designed to avoid.
User Flow – What is it?
We can encounter several synonyms for User Flow in the subject literature – UX Flow, Wire Flow, UI Flow, or IX Flow. There is no additional meaning or content behind them. These are simply different labels for the same tool.
OK, we already know what we're talking about, so let's now elaborate on our main question: What is User Flow? It's a visualization of a process. Or, to put it another way, it shows the path a user takes from the point of entry (e.g., a landing page) to the moment they complete the process (e.g., send a query).
But it's not just about visualizing possible trajectories, but something much more important. That is because User Flow isn't a map – I will write more about this later in the article.
In the user's interaction with an application, an extremely important issue is the speed (the time required to achieve an objective), the understanding of action, its "logic," intuitiveness, and the sense of flow – a subjective sense of fluidity, ease, and lack of effort.
The phenomenon and the corresponding concept of flow on the ground of psychology were introduced, researched, and developed by the American (of Hungarian origin) psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.
According to his view:
Many people use the metaphor of flow to describe the sense of effortless action they feel in moments that stand out as some of the best in their lives. Athletes describe it as being in the zone, religious mystics as being in ecstasy, and artists and musicians as an aesthetic rapture.
Flow in User Flow
When we relate this concept to User Flow, we mean the state in which the user immerses themselves in the activities performed in an application, experiencing them as pleasant, seamless, and effortless.
User Flow design aims to evoke positive and pleasant impressions, which are highly desirable in human contact with a digital product.
Positive impressions directly affect the conversion rate, and this means many things. From higher revenues, profits, and spontaneous recommendations, to more profound and longer-lasting customer loyalty. Is it worth bothering with User Flow? As we can see, this is a somewhat rhetorical question.
User Flow design is challenging because users can perform each task in multiple ways. That's why they all need to be visualized and optimized in terms of the impressions that they will leave at a given point along the path. Of course, it is not about creating a map. User Flow is not another name for User Journey Map.
What is the difference between User Flow and User Journey Map?
A User Journey Map is a much broader concept that also refers to external experiences that aren't always closely related to the experiences triggered by an application. User Journey Mapping captures a user's emotions, problems, motivations, and "pains" in a broader context.
It serves to understand the special position and role of an app in the life of its user. That's why it makes use of information on non-technical issues unrelated to the purpose of its use.
While used to improve experiences, user flow is not a tool for insight into users' emotional and mental states. It's a block diagram of the interface along with the system's capabilities that it offers at a particular node point.
The more complex the application is, the more complicated the block diagram. The User Flow diagram is created with the help of various geometric figures. Most often rectangles, squares, and rhombuses. Graphic symbols (arrows) are used to specify processes, decisions, and flow directions.
User Flow shows how easy/difficult it is to perform a given task. How many decisions it requires, and how many steps (clicks) separate a user from achieving a goal.
Even more importantly, User Flow gives insight into the completeness of the paths in question and whether they always lead to the destination.
The diagrams also allow us to see the mistakes that users can make when trying to achieve a given objective. Thanks to visualization, it's also possible to create optimal ways to achieve them. In other words, by considering users' needs, we can determine the paths they should take.
User Flow is more often a User Journey. The User Journey is concerned with the whole (activities in the application and the context, e.g., where the application is used most often). User Flow focuses on activities and how to optimize, simplify, and make them consistent.
What is User Flow designed to do?
To answer this question, we need to return to the concept of flow because it's relevant here. The point, the core of User Flow design, is to increase the likelihood that it will achieve its goal.
Navigating an application can be frustrating and uncertain, so it should be clear, obvious, and intuitive. When we see the path, we can simultaneously see the extent to which it's efficient and trouble-free.
User Flow also shows which paths are more efficient, where there may be problems and when a user may want to stop using an app. It allows us to see what a particular page or screen provides, what opportunities, what limitations it gives, and what cost (time, cognitive) a user incurs.
In a nutshell, when creating User Flow, we focus on user interactions with a system, their performance, and optimization.
By visualizing User Flows, we also have the ability to:
- Make hypotheses that can be used in the further production of applications.
- Compare solutions and select the optimal solution for a user.
- Create prototypes.
The unquestionable advantages of User Flow are:
- Concretization, visualization of tasks, goals, and processes.
- Lowering the Bounce Rate and increasing the Conversion Rate.
- Visualization of application complexity – All possible paths are on one diagram.
- Better communication with stakeholders.
- Determining all possible tasks and paths.
- Improving the performance of paths so that it is possible to create a sense of flow in the meaning proposed by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.
User Flow – essential questions
The visual side of User Flow doesn't exhaust all the issues involved. It's not just about creating a graphical representation but also understanding processes and tasks. That is particularly important for the quality of optimization work.
Therefore, it is extremely important to ask questions. Here are the most typical ones:
- What is the objective of a user?
- Where does a user begin to take action, and how important is that to the overall process?
- What factors influence decisions to continue using an app?
- What information does a user need to complete the task, achieve the objective?
- What are the typical obstacles, and what can cause frustration and misunderstanding in a user?
User Flow in UX Design – UX Design and Flow Design
Let's return once again to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi's concept of flow. Can we apply his observation, research to User Flow? Can we design flows to induce a particular mental state, induce a flow effect? I'm sure we can.
The appearance of the flow state is fostered by:
- The voluntariness of the activity
- Clearly defined, achievable goals
- Receiving feedback
- A sense of control over the process
- A sense of challenge, but adequate to the possibilities and skills
- Understanding of tasks – certainty regarding rules, means, goals, mechanisms
- Internal motivation
All of the above conditions that foster the appearance of a sense of flow are achievable in digital products. Flow Design for User Flow optimization will focus on the goals and tasks a user wants to achieve by interacting with an application.
The user experience is considered more important or as important as the attractiveness of a layout or information architecture. The ultimate goal of creating User Flows is to ensure that an app meets the expectations of its users.
Design Process – creating User Flow
Diagrams, especially of very complex applications, can present some challenges. Their creation and optimization require the implementation of certain principles, which can safely be called a set of best practices.
When creating User Flow Diagrams, we should:
- Specifically, define our business goals and user objectives.
- Name the paths in a descriptive (illustrative) manner.
- Create them with the formula: 1 flow corresponds to 1 task performed with an application.
- Create one-way flows – thanks to this, User Flow will be a useful, clear, and understandable tool.
- Create Legends.
- Clearly define entry and access points.
- Reduce guesswork, ambiguity, ambivalences, and inaccuracies.
- Consistently stick to the accepted convention for labeling and entering information.
Summary – the most important information about User Flow
- User Flow is a diagram that visualizes the actions of a user (UX user path) who wants to achieve their objectives with an application.
- User Flow can't be confused with User Journey – User Journey is a much broader concept.
- User Flow is an essential part of the design process. It translates into concrete and measurable business benefits.
- Designing and optimizing User Flow is an excellent opportunity to use psychological knowledge to increase the probability of achieving the psychological flow effect studied by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.
- We should create User Flow Diagrams in accordance with best practices.