Academic journal article Issues in Informing Science & Information Technology

The Roles of Challenge and Skill in the Flow Experiences of Web Users

Academic journal article Issues in Informing Science & Information Technology

The Roles of Challenge and Skill in the Flow Experiences of Web Users

Article excerpt

Introduction

Numerous researchers in the field of information systems have employed Csikszentmihalyi's (1975, 1990) flow theory in their analyses of the behavior of Web users, particularly within the context of online shopping (Agarwal & Karahanna, 2000; Chen, Wigand & Nilan, 1998, 1999, 2000; Hoffman & Novak, 1996; Koufaris, 2002; Nel, van Niekerk, Berthon & Davies, 1999; Novak, Hoffman & Yung, 2000). Flow is a state of consciousness that is sometimes experienced when one's attention is intently focused on an enjoyable activity. Flow experiences can be distinguished from the rest of everyday life by a common set of structural characteristics: a balance between the challenges of an activity and the skills required to meet those challenges; clear goals and feedback; concentration on the task at hand; a sense of control; a merging of action and awareness; a loss of self-consciousness; a distorted sense of time; and the autotelic experience (Csikszentmihalyi, 1975, pp. 35-54; 1990, pp. 48-70). The term autotelic refers to an activity that is 'worth doing for its own sake even though it may have no consequence outside itself' (Csikszentmihalyi, 1999, p. 824). To illustrate these ideas, consider the following description of a flow experience provided by a 35-year-old male Web user:

   ... I just come home from work and I just want to relax and I'll
   sit in front of the computer. You know, I'm tired and I'll think,
   'I'll just surf the Web for a half hour or something and go to
   bed'. And before you know it, it's like two or three hours have
   gone ... Sometimes my wife will be going to bed and she may put a
   load of washing on and she'll say, 'Can you just hang that out when
   it finishes'. 'Yeah righto'. And then you totally forget all about
   it ... You know she spoke to you, but you just push it to the back
   of your mind and carry on ... When you're really concentrating on
   one thing, you just don't retain any information about another
   thing.

A recognized precondition for flow is that the challenges an individual faces in a particular activity must be matched by the skills he or she uses in meeting those challenges (Csikszentmihalyi 1975, pp. 49-54; 1990, pp. 49-53). Flow theory suggests that if the challenges of an activity are too high relative to one's skills, one experiences anxiety. If challenges are too low, one experiences boredom. If challenges and skills are both low, one experiences apathy and the overall quality of the subjective experience is the lowest. If challenges and skills are both high, the likelihood of experiencing flow is maximized and the overall quality of the subjective experience is the highest (see Figure 1). This paper discusses the roles that challenge and skill play in the flow experiences of Web users.

[FIGURE 1 OMITTED]

Modeling the Flow Experience

The first researchers to apply the concept of flow to the experiences of Web users were Hoffman and Novak (1996). Based on their understanding of the literature, they developed a conceptual model that identified specific antecedents that are necessary for experiencing flow, and specific consequences that occur as a result of experiencing flow. Hoffman and Novak's (1996) conceptual model served as the foundation for a structural equation model that was later developed by Novak et al. (2000). Model constructs were operationalized and measured by means of a survey of more than 1 600 Web users. Hypothesized relationships between constructs were depicted as path diagrams and translated into a series of structural equations. The resulting model's 'fit' to the data was assessed, and significant paths between model constructs were interpreted as supporting Novak et al. (2000, p. 24) claimed that their study was 'the most comprehensive effort to date to bring quantitative modeling to bear upon the measurement of consumer experience in computer-mediated environments'. …

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