Design vs. User Experience: Build What We Want to Use

I live close to Vancouver's beautiful Stanley Park and enjoy spending my days off wandering the many kilometres of terrain. If you, too, walk through Stanley Park, you'll undoubtedly notice various worn-down paths departing off of actual paths, winding and meandering in all sorts of serpentine manners. In fact, you'll probably notice these sorts of paths everywhere around the word. They are universal. And they speak amply about the way we want to use a system.

Paths of desire exist outside of design

It turns out these paths have real names. Landscape designers and city architects refer to them as "desire paths," or "desire lines." How wonderfully applicable is that? Routes of want. Sometimes these lines might be made out of laziness, or sometimes maybe out of tardiness. Regardless, these paths are created and continue to be used because they work better for people.

Design Paths

People oftentimes create their own paths built outside of the constraints of design.

In the book Universal Principles of Design, the authors describe desire lines as "Traces or use or wear that indicate preferred methods of interaction with an object or environment." These off-beaten paths are a great analogy as to how user experience design (UX) and research can -- and should -- help shape design.

But what do we do with the information desire lines give us? How should we react to them? With their knowledge we can go on make one of two reactionary decisions: shake our heads and believe the desire lines are wrong or appreciate them as valuable feedback. Don't be too proud or stubborn or lazy to do something about them.

Being wrong is something brings great fear to many. But desire paths don't mean the alternative -- the initial design -- is necessarily wrong. It just means users found a different way that they prefer to do things. So instead of slapping your forehead and saying, "These people are all stupid! We laid this out for you, why do you do it differently!?" instead ask, "How can we use your paths as data to make this better for you?"

Let's extrapolate what we know about desire lines out into product design. What is the equivalent of a "desired path" in digital design?

People follow pathways on websites, too

When it comes to the web, we are often faced with roadblocks -- whether intentionally designed or not -- that will impede us from performing certain tasks. But humans are creative, and we will often come up with crafty ways to circumvent restrictions.


One example of users overcoming the limitations of design occurs on Twitter, where the character limit of a tweet is 140 characters. Sometimes, a user will want to post a lengthy thought or a series, so they'll get around the character limit by tweeting out a number of tweets each beginning with a 1/ or 1/5 (etc). This has effectively been named a tweetstorm.

Our creativity has created a new system, one which Twitter, the company, has undoubtedly noticed. But the 140 character limit remains. They have this restriction in place because they look at the data and made informed decisions about the way their users work. Our desire line is one we will continue to use because Twitter will not update their designs, and that's okay. 

The flipside of that is when an organization uses the "desire line" as a starting point. In the image below, the school has quite literally made a path that, as the comments to the right would indicate, was very well received.

Desire paths response

Desire paths are valuable feedback. Delight your users by acknowledging them!

By performing the duties of a UX designer and/or digital analysts, like conducting interviews, holding user studies, and examining analytics, we can recognize patterns in the ways people use websites and apps. We can then determine which routes are best, and which decisions can be made that will better the experience for users.

Data isn't everything

If you use UX design and research, you will build more successful things that people use:

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We pride ourselves here at Custom Fit Online to be able to back up decisions with proof in numbers and date. But this data isn't the be-all and end-all; it's important to use visual design to inject personality and amplify the content. In one of his recent articles, 15 years of Dao, Andy Clarke of Stuff & Nonsense writes…

"The web is a medium for communication outside of 'function' … it's a place for creative experimentation as well as for 'services' … it's [content strategy, performance and user experience] and more."

That last word is important. More. There are many, many things to consider when designing a modern-day website, and that UX design and research are a very important aspect. But it's not everything. Use research and data to inform decisions, especially if you're noticing impromptu, renegade desire paths.

Ben Groulx
Apr 10, 2015
From the Custom Fit Online team

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