What desire lines tell us about user experience

Desire lines are those paths you see in urban areas where people have taken a shortcut across the grass because there is no constructed path, or because the official path takes too circuitous a route. Town planners are interested in them, and so are user experience (UX) designers.

Desire lines tell us something about what people want from an environment, which is often in opposition to those who have designed the environment have guessed they will want, or prefer that they would do.

So what can we learn from desire lines in building better user interfaces for publishers sites?

Homo sapiens: path-maker extraordinaire

Who hasn’t taken a shortcut? We have the habit of taking the most direct route from where we are to where we want to be. If this seems to cast us humans in a lazy light, perhaps it helps to know that we are not alone in the animal kingdom in this regard. Where we cut corners, other species make beelines or fly as the crow flies. Yet our peculiarities position as humankind marks us out as unique path-makers.

While other species might make use of chemical cues to mark a way, we shape our paths physically. Our definition of a path is “a way or track laid down for walking or made by continual treading”. Experts say that as few as 15 passages over a site can be enough to create a distinct trail, and this will attract others to follow the same path. Over time, the paths formed by our distant ancestors in prehistory will have been formalised, mapped, paved, metalled and tarmacced over. Many of our modern thoroughfares and even motorways will once have been desire lines.

We can make an important distinction here between a path that has been made by the repeated movement of people through a space and one that is planned. Planners, developers and architects who work with a blank sheet of paper have a hard job replicating the sort of organic, crowdsourced path design that benefits from the accumulated wisdom of ages.

Take a walk around any new development where paved paths and grass co-exist and you will almost inevitably see desire lines that show contempt for the planners’ ideas about how the pedestrian ought to use the space. Desire lines are spontaneous, somehow optimal, and hard to second-guess in advance on the drawing board. (Urban planners in Finland, apparently, visit their parks immediately after first snowfall to see the paths that people naturally take).

Desire lines typically represent the shortest or most easily navigated route between two points, but they can also show a desire to be comfortable rather than uncomfortable, safe rather than unsafe.

You can learn a lot about human nature, both good and bad, as well as about the shortcomings of planning, from looking at desire lines.

Desire lines and websites

Online spaces differ markedly from physical spaces, it is true; however desire lines represent a useful metaphor for designing digital spaces.

In a physical environment like a park or a housing development, desire lines are visible as wear patches in grass or vegetation. In software design, they show up in analytics. Tracking the paths that users take through a site in search of content tells you a lot about how well the site is serving its users. In site design, we talk about the ‘user journey’. Looking at desire lines in the stats shows the journey users actually took, which may be a very different one from the journey you designed for them.

To give an example of how this perspective can influence site design, look at journals sites. These all tend to follow a very similar pattern of design, but when we ask what it is that dictates that structure we most often see that it is driven by the nature of the print journal. Aside from questions of brand, authority and the need to maintain a degree of recognisability between a print edition and its online equivalent, we can see that certain assumption about user behaviour come along with that heritage.

In the offline world, readers find what they are looking for by following a hierarchical tree structure that moves from broad to specific, progressing down through subject area, journal title, section header, article title, abstract, and finally to article copy. When you take this same content online, however, users have a new ability to search for specific text strings and find what they are interested in that way.

The convention in web design has been to reproduce both methods of finding content: both through the directory structure (browsing) and search. So users have a new choice: to browse or to search. Looking at journals sites would lead you to believe that they still place a lot of emphasis on browsing as the chief way for users to find what they want.

But as a journals publisher, what if a clear desire line in your analytics were to show that far more users are searching than browsing? Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that 90% of content was found through searching as opposed to through browsing – would you still want to put so much effort into creating a truly excellent browsing experience? Or would you perhaps want to put more of your precious development into providing a better search experience, through features such as faceted search, and enriching your content to make search more intelligent, through the use of thesauri, etc.

You might also find in your stats another type of desire line. Perhaps the on-site search you provide is so poor that people are using external search engines to find your content rather than tangling with your own. This would ring alarm bells, since these searches might expose competitive content, lower-quality alternatives that muddy the water, or even pirated versions of your own content. You can’t hide the ‘wild west’ aspect of the internet from your users, but you can provide a superior, more convenient experience that follows their desire paths.

The website as obstacle course

Take a look at the picture below of a desire line in a public park.

The people who run the park have decided they want a tranquil space, where people walk rather than run, and do not ride bicycles. The public clearly thinks otherwise, and the desire line shows the ineffectiveness of this ‘traffic calming’ measure.

Think of the ‘kissing gate’ that blocks this path as any impediment you might place in the path of your website users – deliberately or otherwise. It might be a piece of bad navigation design, or an overly insistent pop-up advertising your annual conference – or an attempt to force users to visit a certain page that they don’t want to view. Then again it could represent a completely legitimate stage-gate you need them to pass through on the way to your monetised content.

‘Free’ on the internet is often more about convenience than it is about affordability. Reflecting on the image above might lead you to ask yourself a number of questions about monetised content. Is your paywall in the right place? Do your payment mechanisms function seamlessly and easily? Are your price points for individual purchase set appropriately …

Desire lines don’t start and end at the boundaries of your site – and the implications of what they have to tell you could go well beyond web design.

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