Desire Paths & The User Experience
Thought leaders and book authors on the subject of user experience frequently use images like the one above to discuss a situation that pops up all too frequently in software development: no matter how amazing you think your design is, your users are probably going to do their own thing. Frequently, the image is used as a cautionary against hubris and comes with instructions on how to avoid the situation by intuiting a user’s goals, typically via usability or A/B testing.
Sometimes crystal balls are jokingly referenced, because understanding the average user is difficult, and usability testing is arduous and frequently inaccurate. We might spend months testing the design and still end up with the picture above.
In this blog post, we offer an alternative, data-driven approach. An approach that embraces the idea that users are going to do whatever they want with our software and uses that to improve the software.
Let’s start by defining our terms. The image above is an example of what is called a Desire Path, which is typically defined as the thing that forms when walkers or cyclists ignore the paved path created by the city planner and beat a new path of their own. Some city planners get upset over this, and install Keep Off the Grass signs or fences, but that rarely works out well.
Universities get hit hardest by desire paths on their otherwise pristine quad lawns, because who wants to walk all the way around you have class in 5 minutes just across the lawn?
But Universities tend to have a lot of smart people working there, so they will frequently use desire paths as the design by waiting for them to form and then paving them over to make the walk easier on the user.
An Agile Approach to User Experience
One thing we often forget when we build software is that it has a life of its own. The only thing that’s over when we ship software is the first version of that software. Software, especially enterprise-level software, lives and grows over time. The same happens to the user experience of that software — even the UI of the operating system changes over time. The only really constant thing about a piece of software is that it changes.
It’s time to embrace that change, to understand that our lovely design will likely be ignored by the user and be OK with that. We want what the user wants.
The solution is to forego iterating too much on our UX design and discover real-world usage in the field. That’s not to say “don’t design”, just… don’t sweat it too much. The data you will need to make the design better will come from the actual use of your application.
Log clicks and taps, mouse movements, swipe attempts, focus changes, typing, copy/paste, and navigation. Generate heat maps. Learn where your users are going and what they’re doing on a day-to-day basis. Use that information to modify your design. If you find that users consistently navigate from one page or section to another page and then come back, especially if they copy and paste, consider putting whatever data they’re looking for into their hands on the main page.
Wait for the desire path to form before you pave it over.
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