Jussi Ahola

Curious humanist

Desire paths

A desire path is a path that is formed when people choose not to use the path that you have paved for them. It’s the shortest or otherwise most convenient way for them to get from point A to point B. A popular desire path shows by the erosion that has been caused to the land beneath it:

Example of a desire path. Courtesy of Kake Pugh, under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

You can tell a lot about whether urban planners have done a good job in designing the roads of a given area from the desire paths that run through it. Good design should take the natural behaviour of people into account and lay roads accordingly; a desire path shows you where the optimal path runs. It’s a shame that concrete and asphalt don’t erode well enough for us to tell where the desire paths run in modern concrete jungles.

Rumour has it that in Finland urban planners study desire paths in parks by observing where the first paths are formed after a snowfall has covered the official pathways. These observations can then be used to decide where the new official paths should run. According to another story, there is a university that didn’t lay any paths in their new campus during its first year. After the first year had passed, they built the pathways according to the desire paths that had been naturally formed. Regardless of whether these stories are true or not, they are nice examples of good design thinking.

However, desire paths exist beyond parks and other urban settings. They exist in your products, services, and organizations. The paths that you have designed into your products are often not the paths that people actually tread along when they use your product. The way that people access public services is often not the way that the authorities designed them to be accessed. People don’t necessarily enter your organization through the front door, but rather by talking about you on your unmonitored backyard.

Sometimes the problem is that you cannot easily see where these desire paths run. You might not have the luxury of a snowfall covering the official paths; the ground is covered with concrete revealing nothing about people’s behaviour. In these cases it is only through careful observation and rigorous data collection that these desire paths can be uncovered. User studies should be about learning how people actually want to use your product; web analytics is an example of a data collection method that can help you to map where the desire paths run on your website.

Whatever it is that you are building, knowing where the desire paths run and laying the official paths to run along them will lead to a better experience for the people treading on the turf that you are creating for them.