Designing the desire line

There’s a concept in town and park planning known as ‘desire lines’.

These are the unplanned pathways created by people walking away from the pre-determined routes designed by Place Management or Park Planners.

You’ll have seen the routes of mud in parks where footsteps have worn away grass or trampled down undergrowth. Through such frequent use these have become informal paths – chosen by multiple users because they offer a better route than the shiny paved pathway created by the designer.

It’s a beautiful concept: regardless of where they are told to go, humans will always go where they desire to go instead. And the more people who take that route, the more permanent and pervasive that route becomes… and the harder it is to be ignored by the planners.

Designing the desire line - park pathways

If this many people are taking the route, shouldn’t you build them a path?


You can all see where I’m going with this – it’s a strikingly familiar concept to any user experience or digital designer. The digital desire line can be a hugely important consideration in the design of systems and websites.

The path of least resistance

When speaking of desire lines, Wikipedia defines desire lines as: “The path usually represents the shortest or most easily navigated route between an origin and destination.”

If a user sees a route they perceive as the best, they will take it, irrespective of the available paths built for them.

The important thing here is to ensure that they see this route. There is no point having a beautifully planned user journey if the first step from the user’s landing page is obscured or absent.

This path should be clear of debris – remove the irrelevant content, the distracting unrelated links and that flashing animated character you somehow thought was a good idea. Keep the journey clean, the destination clear, and the distractions minimal.

The opposite: Momentum behaviour

Sometimes we’ll find in our research that a user has become so used to an inferior method of navigation or operation that they’re entrenched in this behaviour, and persist in using it despite the easier or more optimal route available to them.

We all do it. As I write this article I’ll often stop to correct a misspelt word in the previous sentence. The optimal method is to move the cursor to the point of edit and change the specific word. But habit and familiarity will often lead me to hit the backspace key, deleting everything back to the offending word, which I will then correct and retype what I’ve just removed.

Designing the desire line - the long way round

To be fair to myself, I could be doing it far worse.


It’s crazy when I think about it, hugely inefficient, but it’s a behaviour I have become entrenched in and it will take some serious effort to adopt the more effective approach. And as we all know, users hate effort.

Even if a user knows a specific route clearly offered to them might be more efficient or effective, they will probably still stick with what they know. The user embraces the familiarity and confidence that their way will get the job done, rather than trying out a new and unknown method.

The user weighs up the perceived benefit of changing behaviour against the cost of change. The resultant choice is frequently heavily biased towards sticking with their chosen method, so any persuasion to change has to work extra hard to be compelling.

Sometimes users like the scenic route

It’s also incorrect to assume that the quickest route is always the best for a user.

Often a certain number of steps in a process give reassurance and clarification for a user – they instil confidence that an activity had been successful. After all, most of us would be deeply suspicious if a house purchase was completed in a ten-second process.

Our own personal and cultural experience leads us to assume that buying a house is a long, arduous process. We’d tell you we wanted it to be quicker and easier, and we do. But for us to jump from the long hard experience to a quick and painless one with no adaptation time can well throw us off, making us doubt whether the job had been properly completed or wonder if something had been missed.

In these terms, a user needs a little more reassurance, a couple of confirmation steps and some indication that the quicker process has actually done everything it should.

So what?

If a user becomes lost, they leave.

If a user misses intended functionality to aid their journey, then the experience you’ve worked so hard to design is lost on them. They shouldn’t need a map.

If a user becomes entrenched in an inferior path this is not a problem per se, provided they get the job done. BUT, if it’s taking longer than it should then how long before an easier alternative service tempts them away, when your optimal path was there all along?

What do I do about it?

The key here is to build your experiences around your users’ desire lines.

In some countries, planners will visit new parks after snowfall to observe the paths created when the pre-designed paths are covered. The footprints show them if they need to redesign the pathways and give them insight into future planning.

In a similar way, we need to identify our users’ desired journey, their needs at each step in that journey, and the moments you can create to not only facilitate that experience but to enhance it.

Identify how this route can take the user efficiently and intuitively through to their final intended destination. The desire lines are the backbone of your system or site design, and the skeleton on which the rest of the site structure should sit.

Are your user journeys accurate?

If you’re looking at a live site where a user interface (UI) already exists, identify these ‘desire lines’ if they’re already happening. Work on the basis that the user is correct: what is so good about their chosen route? Re-work your journeys accordingly.

When starting from scratch, the more research into your users the better. Their wants, needs, pain-points, loves, motivations – everything you can get – will aid you in understanding how to most effectively shepherd your users through processes and functionality.

I’d say that, if possible, physically going to watch your user in their natural environment can reap amazing insights that data alone won’t show you.

Conduct user testing such as online video testing services, direct observation testing, eye-tracking, and heat maps will give you plenty of insight into how users behave when attempting to complete tasks.

Cross-reference your findings with your analytics – blend your qualitative with your quantitative – and you’ll have a solid picture of your user’s current journeys, and how they feel about them, and how you could improve them.

From this research, before you even worry about page structure, plan out user journeys that meet their needs and expectations. From there, you can build a page structure that works for them.

(SEO NOTE: Be sure to run any information architecture changes past your SEO team, lest you axe a bunch of the most highly valued pages by accident.)

Is your nav / UI working?

Are the ‘optimal’ navigation/UI routes visible to the user – do they understand how the UI can help them reach their destination? Is it effectively labelled, designed, and located?

Test your navigational structure to ensure it makes sense to the user. Your company’s internal structure is not always your user’s most intuitive way of structuring navigation options. What do they expect? Card sorting exercises are great for this, as well as qualitative observations from users testing the UI.

Take in the view

The key to all of this is observation and testing.

Take a step back and view all of the data and evidence you can amass and the desire lines will show themselves.

Armed with these, you can start optimising for the routes that you know your users want to take, as well as easing them down the routes that might serve them better.


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