Desire Paths: Learning from Consumer Behavior

I recently came across a fascinating TED Talk given by designer Tom Hulme which asks “What can we learn from shortcuts?”. At first glance, many of us would probably be skeptical of the shortcut – after all, we’re conditioned to do due diligence, examine a problem from several angles, and then create a strategy for building a solution. Innovators should create the shortcut but not necessarily take it, right?

But Hulme is interested in learning from the shortcuts that we take in our daily lives. As a designer, his eye is attuned to patterns and deviations from those patterns. Examining the shortcuts that appeal to us as human beings, he proposes, is a powerful way to learn what drives us, what we want, and how we move through our world.

The Paths of Least Resistance

Hulme’s TED Talk begins with the statement “When we’re designing new products, services or businesses, the only time (we’ll) know if they’re any good, if the designs are good, is to see how they’re used in the real world, in context.” I’m sure anyone who’s been through the product testing process would agree. Ideas about design, marketing, and user experience must be proved by practice in order to arrive at a final product that people will actually use.

Hulme is fascinated by “desire paths,” which are, he notes, “often the path of least resistance.” Desire paths are created when people deviate from the paths that are laid out for them – imagine the trails of trampled grass cutting across parks, empty lots, or college campuses. We create desire paths in order to travel more quickly or avoid obstacles. Desire paths, Hulme says, are “the point where design and user experience diverge.” Studying these shortcuts can teach us about human behavior, consumer behavior, and how to design for real life.

Learning from Consumer Behavior

The University of California at Irvine took an interesting approach to campus design, which Hulme calls “launch to learn.” Students will always find the shortcut (because they’re often smart and usually running late, he notes), and the campus designers decided to use this to their advantage. “They built the buildings,” Hulme says, “and then they waited a few months for the (desire) paths to form – they then paved them.” By following their consumer’s lead, they were able to build in the “features” that were in demand and avoid the expense (in time and money) of guessing incorrectly.

This approach will sound familiar to those who have built a Minimum Viable Product (MVP), which entrepreneur Eric Ries defined as “the version of a new product which allows a team to collect the maximum amount of validated learning about customers with the least effort.” Inviting consumers into the design process through the deployment of an MVP is a proven pathway towards a final product that resonates with its target audience. The “desire paths” this process reveals – which services are in demand, which are superfluous, how people interact with the product when it’s in their hands – are priceless in the design process.

“Our job,” Hulme says, “is often to pave these emerging desire paths.” Designers who watch and analyze consumer behavior are able to respond to it and formalize the solutions that their customers indicate to them. Marketers who understand how users will interact with a product are able to adapt the promotion to support new or unexpected uses.

User Experience Leads the Way

On the Foreward blog at FullStory, Justin Owings explores how technology enables new desire paths in our lives. “The Internet is a massive green space across which desire paths are being cut all the time, in apps, devices, and websites,” he notes. Google collects and reinforces desire paths when it suggests search queries, for instance. Smartphones are both a result of desire paths (the desire to use the internet on-the-go) and vehicles for the creation of new paths like apps, which are shortcuts for functions that previously would have taken place in a browser window.

Because of this technology, desire paths are perhaps both more prevalent and more quantifiable than ever. Analytics services can record users interactions with websites – which buttons they click, which they ignore – and reveal data that designers use to streamline their user experience and point towards desired outcomes. For marketers, it’s as though we are watching trails through the grass emerge at hyper speed.

Consumers are telling us what they want, what they need, and what messages they respond to. As designers or marketers, all we need to do is pay close attention to the desire paths that rise to the surface and then formalize them. Shortcuts, it seems, can teach us quite a lot.


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