Did you know that many of the paths throughout New York City’s Central Park were originally dirt paths created by park visitors? Instead of trying to predict how people make sense of and navigate through wide-open spaces, the landscape architects intentionally allowed desire lines to emerge all over Central Park over the course of a few months.1 They then had a clear indication of what to pave over. Happy architects, happy park visitors…both enjoying the results of good old-fashioned common sense.
The beauty of allowing desire lines to emerge naturally is that it allows for human problem-solving and wayfinding to become physically manifest in the world around us. Urban planners are coming to respect this more and more, as they realize that their expert opinions cannot always predict how people will use and make sense of public spaces. They are also learning that neither barriers, incentives, nor punishments deter people from doing what they know instinctually to be a more efficient solution.2
I think desire lines as a Universal Design Principle provide a valuable lesson for User Experience designers to learn…mainly, they serve to remind us that it is not how we make sense of our designs, but how everyone else will make sense of them. This can be a tough pill to swallow, since we take understanding others very seriously…after all, we’ve done our best to understand our users’ mental models. We’ve done meticulous card-sorting exercises to understand terminology and taxonomies. Throw in some contextual inquiry for good measure. But sometimes, our expertise just won’t matter. Our users will always find a way to surprise us, and that’s okay. In a related post on Christian Crumlish’s blog, titled Pave the Cowpaths, he states:
“A better plan is to support the behaviors your users are engaged in. Let your users tell you what the best and highest use of your interface may turn out to be. Don’t be so arrogant as to assume you know everything about how the social dynamics you’ve unleashed need to evolve.” -Christian Crumlish
Finding Desire Lines
Here are a few ideas for uncovering the desire lines in your designs.
- Review your site’s most commonly searched terms. Some users find what they want by using navigation, others look directly for the search box and type in what they are looking for. Be sure you are capturing the search terms, and run through this list and see if any terms come up over and over again, and also scan it for synonyms—you may discover that not all people use the same words to describe the same thing. Then, once you have your list of popular terms, run them through your search yourself. What is the quality of the search results? If they are lacking, or worse—missing altogether—make it a priority to update your search index.
- Use Google Analytics. Google Analytics provides information on the pages with high bounce rates, top content, and navigation summaries. It is critical to know where people are leaving your site, where they are spending time, and how they got there before making decisions about improvements.
- Watch users navigate. Provide a task-based scenario for an end-user to walk through, asking him or her to talk aloud as they are processing their options and making decisions. Record their screen activity, preferably along with the audio of their voices. Steve Krug’s latest, Rocket Surgery Made Easy, will help you pull through the testing without a glitch.
- Do an eye-tracking study. Services like Crazy Egg make it easier than ever to see heat maps of your designs. Do they reveal that people are looking in places that you would not have expected, and creating Desire Lines you didn’t predict? If so, after an eye-tracking study, you’ll have a better idea of what changes to make.
Instead of trying to subvert desire lines as they emerge, or require people learn “our way” of thinking, we should try to find ways to incorporate the usage patterns as another “path” through our designs. After all, isn’t that the beauty of hypertext?
“This is the web. Fix it.” -Luke Wrobleski at Chicago AEA, 2009.
(This is the second out of 125 universal design principles that I will cover this year.)
1. Rebuilding Central Park: A Management and Restoration Plan by Elizabeth Barlow Rogers, MIT Press, 1987.
2. Universal Principles of Design by William Lidwell, Kritrina Holden, Jill Butler, Rockport Publishers, 2010, p. 76-77.
The Poetics of Space: The Classic Look at How we Experience Intimate Places by Gaston Bachelard, Beacon Press, 1964/1994.
Commerical Success by Looking for Desire Lines by Carl Myhill in Computer Human Interaction: 6th Asia Pacific Conference, APCHI 2004, Roturua, New Zealand.
Usability: if people don’t use it, it’s broken by George Weiner, 2010.