Rhythm & Flow

Transcript of 'Rhythm & Flow' given at WUD November 2015 and in Deloitte Digital COP April 2016

cheetah - 8908629311_dc94aa8bdf_k.jpg

Rhythm & Flow

I remember being in middle school, dreading Wednesdays. That was the day our gym teacher forced us to run around the football field. I was this height went I was only 13. I was all knees and elbows, and truly awful permed flaming hair. I would stumble along at the back of the pack, red-faced and stumbling and out of breath, coming in almost last, every single week.

This morning I ran the Tan Track before dawn, jogging from my hotel along the dark river bank. By the time I hit the gravel my muscles were warm, my joints had loosened and I started to relax as I listened to the crunch beneath my feet and the pulse of music in my ears. 

Right around the time I saw the gothic garden gate ahead, it started. 

Chemicals flooded my brain. Every though, feeling, and emotion was swept away in the torrent of joy rushing though my body. I was grinning like a cheshire cat. I couldn’t help myself, I started laughing. 

Sometimes, when it’s really strong. I’ll tilt my head back and howl like a coyote. 

Every time I run I get high. 

Without smoking, shooting, or snorting anything. 

I can get high whenever I want to. I’m going to tell you how you can do it, for yourself, for your clients, and for your users without breaking a sweat.

(My husband for one thinks running is a form of medieval torture invented by thin insane sadists.)

But first you need to understand Flow.

Let's start with what Flow isn't. 

Flow is not not checking Facebook for the 17th time in an hour, Flow is not thinking about what you want for lunch. Flow is not stressing about the deadline that you might miss.

Flow is the optimal state of engagement. Do you remember the last time you lost track of time? You were reading or dancing or playing a video game.

You were so engaged in what you were doing that you were not thinking of anything else. Time had ceased to exist and you didn’t feel anything but happy.

Flow is that sweet spot where your brain and your body come together when challenge and ability are balanced and you can see your way forward to achievement.

Flow was first defined by this guy. Me-High Chick-Sent-Me-High-Ee

He wrote several books about creativity and Flow.

Last year we talked about how Flow is addicting, but it’s a high that’s good for you. How it can relieve stress, support learning, improve performance, and even help you heal.  We talked about creating experiences that balanced challenge and ability to and how to engage users with play. We talked about how the goal of UX should be more than making an experience simple. The goal of UX should be to create experiences that ‘Flow’.

That’s all still true. But there was something I was missing. I figured out since then is that achieving Flow is about more than balancing challenge and ability and achievement.

Today I’m going to tell you how I unlocked a new level in the game of  flow, and how I see the future of UX. This talk started with an a-ha moment. I literally had one of those lightning-bolt sort of experiences.  

I have been a runner for about 15 years. The first time I experienced a runner’s high I knew I’d be a runner for the rest of my life. I was addicted.

(In reality I look like a knock-kneed giraffe ambling across an asphalt savannah, but I digress)

Since that first high, like a junkie, I’ve been obsessively trying to figure out how to predictably create that experience. When I learned about Flow, everything I’d been seeking suddenly had a framwork, a vocabulary, and a direction.

Like any good junkie/researcher I started experimenting, researching, and gathering data. When I was focused on Flow, I was able to see how everything in my work and my life fit into the context of challenge and ability.

How my addiction to learning and achievement gave meaning to every task and even the arc of my career. Still, I was stumped by one thing. I wanted a recipe for predictably achieving Flow. I did more research. I went back to game design, and looked at the ways that game designers engage players. With stimulus, color, sound...

Then one day I was out running. I knew I’d get a high that day, because I have figured out how to manufacture a runner’s high, and conditions were perfect.

My ‘Flow’ playlist was on, songs with soaring vocals, about 165 bpm

My favorite running shoes, about 150 miles of use on them.

It was 52 degrees and lightly misting.

(Subconsciously this is maybe why I moved to Seattle. Rain has always been my muse.)

A 5.5 mile route that winds along the waterfront and past soaring trees that have lived a hundred years. I was running, the music was playing, and when I hit my stride my body was flooded with feel-good chemicals. I was in mid-coyote howl when it hit me.  The key to achieving predictable engagement, predictable flow...is Rhythm.


If you remember one word from my talk today, I want it to be Rhythm.

As organic beings, we are hard-wired for rhythm. Our hearts, our minds, and our mouths gravitate towards rhythm. 

Every truly significant human achievement can be attributed to rhythm. Science, systems, buildings.

The pace of our existence is determined by rhythm. 

I’ve been studying flow for three years. I think about it, talk about it (sometimes ad nauseum as my friends and colleagues will attest), and look for ways to see the world around me through the lense of Flow and engagement.

Everything about Flow screams Rhythm...and it took me 3 years to realize that it was the key to unlocking Flow. Sometimes I’m a little slow.

The missing ingredient to the Flow recipe is rhythm.

Simply put. Rhythm combined with challenge and ability, will result in engagement.  

You might be asking yourself at this point, “Um, what does this have to do with Usability?

Um, everything.

Usability is engagement. Yes you want to make sure the experience is simple, natural, and goal oriented.

But when you are so focused on counting trees and branches, marking off success and failure, you’ll miss the engaging beauty of the forest and the sky above. The more usable your design or product is the more engaging it is.

Nature, Art, science, and technology all rely on rhythm to create the fundamental structure for achievement. When those rhythms and patterns are disrupted, the building falls, the system gives you a 404, the ‘Flow’ breaks, and the user disengages.

So how do we use rhythm to innovate to engage our users, our team, and even our stakeholders?

It’s just like achieving a runner’s high. You create a proven structure with a predictable rhythm.

But how?!?!?!

Well, it’s not the same for everyone, Flow is individual. My formula may be saucony shoes, trees, rain, and a 8.75 min pace and 164 beats per min.

You may get high on a bike in the city with nirvana and clip in pedals (ok so also one of my recipes for Flow)

So how do you use rhythm to engage users? We create a structure where we deliver challenge in sync with user’s abilities with a predictable rhythm of achievement.

What does this look like?

How many of you have worked on a retail experience? Banking account opening?Educational system? A lot of bad experiences out there, but I’ve noticed something. They are getting better.I mean I’m not achieving any sort of coyote-howling rush when checking my bank account balance or paying my credit card bill.But I do feel kinda tingly when I remember at the last minute that my bill is due, and I can whip out my phone,log in with my thumb-print, and within 30 seconds view my balance,choose a payment amount, and source, and hit make payment.

These experiences are engaging us. We are up for the challenge of spending 30 seconds paying our credit card bill while standing in line at the movie theater. <Image>We have the ability to click through less than 5 screens, without having to zoom in or type in numbers.  We are rewarded by an ever cheerful ‘Thank you for your payment’ screen and the knowledge we will still have a good credit score next month. Achievement Without the pain and frustration of trying to type in lots of numbers on your phone, or zoom in to see a desktop site, it’s easy to fall into the simple rhythm of paying your credit card balance.

It’s not full-blown Flow. But it’s not torture either. We are engaged in the experience of managing your finances, and it feels good. <Image-happy person>

These experiences are a result of a combination of User Research, User Centered Design, and  Usability Testing. Basically, good UX.

We know how to do that right? Even if you didn’t know you were targeting Flow, you’ve been using patterns, rhythm, and best practices that lead to engaging experiences.

Some of my favorite are:

Predictable IA - If you understand your users, I mean really understand them

Request and Reward

Design Patterns


Now, why is it that we all know at least a little bit about how to engage our users, but from my experience many of us spend a lot of time either bored or stressed at work. It’s like Goldilocks and the three bears. Too hot, too cold, and all the just-right projects were snapped up by someone else.

What if we were able to balance challenge, ability, and achievement at work with a predictable rhythm that resulted in Flow? Actually, it already exists. <Image>The agile process is the equivalent of using rhythm to create project Flow. Not everyone uses it correctly, but in theory it’s designed to help projects ‘Flow’.

In the spring of 2015 I started a new job. My first day on the job I discovered that the project I was working on had been sold with a stipulation that there would be usability testing. Awesome I thought!

Then the other shoe dropped. As part of our agile transformation we want said usability testing to be done every two weeks, while simultaneously producing new designs, and receiving feedback on those designs.

They’d sold Agile UX, and I had to walk in on my first day, with my first-day high heels on and  run 6 back-to-back hour long user sessions, with a script I saw for the first time that morning.

It was awesome. Hello Flow.

I’m going to pause and go on a tangent here, Do you know why I was able to engage in this challenge instead of stopping, shutting down, and crying in the bathroom? Because it had all the right ingredients. #1...there was a challenge.

I’m kind of awesome at user interviews (ability).

I knew that I had six interviews to do with the same script for each (that's the rhythm.)  

And I knew what I wanted to get out of them and from experience knew how valuable that information would be for informing later designs (you guessed it...achievement.)

A few weeks later I cobbled together a few proven methodologies with past experience and dash of client knowledge to create a Franken-UX process/method. It had all the ingredients needed to engage the team, and the client with the goal of producing a truly user centered design.

Pulse was born.


Amazingly enough it worked. The client loved it. Pulse is a format now being piloted on a number of projects across our organization.

Pulse creates a predictable 2 or 3 week rhythm for UX that dovetails with the Agile methodology, a pattern that’s been proven to engage developers, and produce quality systems in less time that traditional waterfall methods.

It’s built on the foundations of User Centered Design and Agile Methodology. With a focus on engaging users, teams, and clients (Hello ROI…)

There are three things that need to happen with a predictable rhythm in order to produce engagement and ultimately flow. I have already mentioned them all, twice.

In case you forgot.



Whatever it is we are building, designing, or even fixing. There is a challenge involved. Pulse, works with agile, so the challenges are broken down into user stories. Small bite-sized chunks that can be eaten up by UX practitioners excited about flexing their mental muscles.


This leads to ability. We are all problem solvers. At Deloitte we have this amazing flat organization that creates an environment where people can not only use their abilities to solve problems, but they are given opportunities to learn and grow as they meet the challenges of the project. With Pulse those challenges are sized to the individual. Team members take on the bite-sized problems and have everything they need to solve them in a supportive and inspiring environment.


Most of the projects we do last about 3-6 months. It’s a predictable cadence that allows individuals to engage with projects at intervals that keep people engaged. The payoff of completing a project and achieving results has a rhythm, this is a pretty common model. The one thing is that before Agile and before Pulse. Projects had distinctive highs and lows. Months of planning, a few furious weeks of design, then months and months of feedback and refinement. At the end of the project, designers hate the stakeholders, stakeholders think the designers are hacks and start doing design themselves in PowerPoint, project managers start drinking more, and everyone is counting down the days until the whole thing is over. Tends to burn people out.

Usually we start things off with a sprint or two of discovery. To establish baseline knowledge of the problem and of the user. But we don’t need to know everything, because the research doesn’t stop. While doing discovery we create a rhythm for the projects alongside the sprint plan that shows day-by-day what the team will be focusing on and when the touch points will be. These plans allow for UX research design and testing one sprint

We use the RITE method on testing day. Showing one design to users in morning sessions then integrating over lunch and showing users a second design in afternoon sessions. We follow up 15 min usability sessions with 15 min interview and 15 min of user reactions to visual designs to maximize the time and to gain insights for next week’s design problems.

Assets are templated, simple to produce, and easy to understand and allow for communication across disciplines and up to the highest administrative levels. There are no 60 page reports or 100 slide powerpoints with 8 point font. No jargon. One-page reports are distributed the day after testing. Simple 5-6 slide decks highlight the work in the sprint at the end of each 2 weeks.


Every sprint, every team member achieves something. The entire process is design to engage the people building the system.

And guess what? It will deliver an experience that has integrated user feedback at every stage of the design cycle.

By combining Pulse with agile methodologies, within the first few weeks of starting a project, researchers and designers who in traditional projects may not see results for months or years can see in-production screens that were directly informed by their research.

It seems simple. It is simple.

And with all things simple, it can be very hard to convince people who are used to doing things the hard way, to change to something simpler.

But it’s so worth it.

I want you to think about the last time you were so engaged in what you were doing that you lost track of time and felt like you could ride, run, or read forever. Those experiences do not need to be rare.

Those experiences are what makes all this worth it. Life is made up of a million experiences that add up to create meaning. The essence of our jobs is to Make life better, easier, and ultimately more engaging. What we do, and the way we do it can make life worth living for literally billions of people.

And if add a little rhythm to the mix, it can make everything a lot more fun.