For the love of desire paths

I’ve always liked desire paths. Even before I knew what they were called.

At art collage I remember watching people take multiple routes across a square area of grass, but never around it. I liked the people watching element. And the way the paths effectively let you people watch after the fact. The documentary element.

I’ve written here before about this documentary nature of paths and other pieces of evidence of human actively. And I thought I’d also written a dedicated piece on desire paths, but it seems not.

I did write very briefly about them in 2008 on It’s Nice That. A time when INT were inviting friends and partners to guest post. This marks the time that I started to use them as a metaphor for observing user habits. I was by no way the first to do this, but I certainly became a frequent user.

This is because it was a perfectly relatable and accessible way to teach clients about listening to users and about recognising patterns of behaviour. In my opinion.

I’ve repeated similar lessons to students as well when I’ve taught about user centred design.

It’s sad to me then, and a tad confusing to be honest, after years of this love and belief that it’s an interesting way of looking at human behaviour, that people now seem to be hating on the idea.

This blogpost is the most succinct example explaining what’s called ‘the desire path Design vs. UX meme’.

And this tweet seems to be in reference, though I can’t quite judge it’s angle.

Perhaps I’m being dense in not quite understanding the angle of any of these people, but I think they’re all getting a bit too angry about a nice little idea. Sure, the desire path isn’t a perfect definition of ‘UX’. But does anyone seriously think it is?

If the argument is on the semantic level then fine. I’ll leave you to it. But if not, if you think this commonly occurring example of people forging and revealing their own needs isn’t in some way a helpful illustration of user behaviour, then also fine. But I think you’re missing out on something lovely and effective.

I’m going to keep enjoying them and pointing them out to clients and students when I see fit.