Summary: Desire paths are “paths created as a consequence of foot or bicycle traffic.” Some demonstrate the difference between Design and UX, others have been adapted through user input, and some were originally designed around users. All tell us a thing or two about what it means to design for humans.
I recently came across a small, tucked away community on Reddit called /r/DesirePath. Actually, I take that back – it’s not that small. In fact, it’s over 28,000 members strong, and they’re all interested in one thing: paths created as a consequence of foot or bicycle traffic. “But what could this possibly have to do with UX,” you ask? Everything.
You’ve probably seen this image before. It’s an excellent “real world” example of the difference between design and UX (or, more specifically, user-centered design). I love examples like this because they help me to explore my approach to UX (and the more tangible aspects of it), they display how UX can transcend the digital medium, they demonstrate how UX plays into basic human psychology and behaviors, and they also make it much easier to communicate “what UX is” to non-designers.
As I really started to dig into the Desire Path community, I realized that many of the images could be associated with different stages of UX.
Design vs. UX
In many of the images, you’ll find paths that were blatantly designed in absence of user input. Most of those paths are accompanied by highly trafficked desire paths that transport the user to their destination faster and more efficiently, despite not being paved. Here, users are asserting how they want to use the product.
In some cases, designs will be adapted to accommodate the user by paving the desire path (thus making it a real path). These are really interesting because they’re a great example of design iteration through (natural and unsolicited) user feedback. Here, the designer is confirming the user’s needs and thus improving the design.
Finally, some paths were constructed only after users were given a chance to forge their own desire paths. This is especially common at universities. For example, UC Berkley purposely waited to develop paths until after they saw where foot traffic naturally created them. Here, the design is being created around the user and their needs.
The Key Distinction
We can learn a lot from these images in terms of design and it’s relationship with human behavior / needs. But more than anything, desire paths help to create the distinction that UX optimizes the design around how users can, want, or need to use the product, rather than forcing the users to change their behavior to accommodate the design. They also help us to understand how useful unsolicited feedback can be. If your users are naturally using your product a certain way and your design isn’t optimized for that, observe their behaviors and begin to adapt the design to meet their needs.