Desire paths, and shortcuts people make in physical spaces are also relevant to UX design. Users always find clever ways to use software that suits them better, showing their agency. Designers can weave these desire paths into their design process through research and user flow consideration.
☕ Desire paths - following the users’ tracks
You’ve likely met the concept of desire paths before. It has a quite recognizable illustration of people finding the shortest way to their goal in a park, creating footpaths in the grass, off the official paved roads.
The idea has origins in architecture, as an emergent behavior. There is even a subreddit with a bunch of nice examples.
It’s also a useful analogy to use for UX design. However well designed is a software, outside of a few trivial applications people will find ways to use it in new and novel ways that fit their purpose better. For example, people add a website shortcut to their home screen in a desire to have an app-like behavior.
Desire paths in design refer to user behaviors or interactions that deviate from the intended or prescribed user flow. Just as desire paths are created by people taking shortcuts or following their preferred routes in physical spaces, they reflect users’ natural tendencies, preferences, and expectations - and their actions to further their goals.
This is a thing I love about desire paths, they highlight user agency. This makes them a useful tool for co-designing. And users usually find some level of agency - too many notifications from an app? They will find a way to remove them, suppress them, hide them, or simply ignore them, at worst uninstalling your app. They don’t like how the data is presented. They will copy and paste it into their own Excel sheet, maybe by getting a script from a fellow user.
A key difference to physical desire paths is that they get more used and visible as people walk over them, while digital ones will not appear more used. People need to make an extra effort to share their workarounds, and if the issue is painful enough, they will start sharing - on Slack, on forums, and social media. Besides the direct observation of behavior, looking for such artifacts is helpful to understand what hacks people have for using your product.
Desire paths can also get frustrating. The design was made with a clear intention, and users are abusing it. Intended user flow is sidelined, and goals will be not reached. In some industries, like medicine, unintended use can even be dangerous.
Outside of the danger of course dealing with artifacts of such use requires humility from the designers - to realize they might be wrong about the assumptions they had at the time they designed the flow. It also requires empathy - to understand the users’ goals, motivation, and intended desires.
Finding desire paths is sometimes just a curiosity, just one user doing something in their own way. This is where user research, especially continuous user research helps - to understand what’s an exception, and what’s a common occurrence.
To use desire paths as an input in the design process, there are a few things to consider:
- Designers need to notice what users do. This means at the minimum using the product they are designing, but also hanging out sometimes where users are, and looking at strange user behavior with a curious eye. Good quantitative and qualitative user research helps in this.
- Have a good understanding of why the user do what they do. In physical space, this is usually clear (there is no shorter path), while in the digital space, this might be more tricky. Good qualitative user research can help in this.
- Solutions need to consider paths. This is why thinking in flows instead of screens is important, as screens show static states of people being somewhere, while flows also show where the users coming from and where are they heading afterward.
What’s great about considering them, is that they provide instant upgrades to the existing user experience. A shortcut made official, a workaround sanctioned by adding it as a function.
There are also some downsides to following the user’s desired paths. Adding shortcuts can lead to an incoherent experience that might serve heavy users, but confuse new users. The possibility of workarounds might frustrate or confuse the users. And desire paths might prove less efficient after all - as the users’ mental model might not match the system’s.
Some products, especially if there are ways for the user to add content, also enable emergent behavior, where users can create their desire paths. For example, people who have sections on their desktop wallpaper to organize their files need a more visual way to see their files. This is an emergent behavior supported by the possibility of users being able to set their images as desktop backgrounds.
Developing the mindset around desire paths is relatively easy - design leaders should encourage their teams to use the product they are working on, provide opportunities to directly observe users using the system in a non-scripted way, and if possible do field trips to user’s spaces.
🥤 To recap
- Desire paths, seen in physical spaces like parks, are routes people create by taking shortcuts to reach their goals more efficiently.
- In UX design, desire paths refer to user behaviors that deviate from the intended flow, reflecting users’ preferences and goals.
- Desire paths highlight user agency and can be a useful tool for co-designing and improving the user experience.
- Frustration can arise when users abuse the intended design, sidelining the intended flow and hindering goal achievement.
- To incorporate desire paths in design, designers should observe user behavior, understand their motivations, and consider user flows rather than static screens.
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🍪 Things to snack on
Smriti Swaminathan’s What desire paths teach us about UX design is a good introduction to desire paths with some fun examples.
Sophie Hodge writes a few cool stories about desire paths, before giving a few tips on how to handle them in What’s a ‘desire path’ anyway, and what does it reveal about us? I loved this tip of hers “Give users total freedom, then watch and learn.”.”
Desire paths can act as guidance for the overall design process too, as Jim Kalbach shows in Designing Screens Using Cores and Paths. The basic idea here is that a user flow should always start from the core, the main goal for the users, and both the inward and outward paths should be considered.