Digital Desire Paths and User Experience: How to Create Websites That Work the Way People Want Them To

A coworker of mine posted this fun image to our internal Facebook wall the other day. It’s been circulating around the Internet for a while, and it always makes us Creatives chuckle. We all look at it and think to ourselves, “How true. People never do what we want them to do. How infuriating and frustrating.”

User Experience vs. Design

What you see in the image above is actually called a “desire path” (also known as a desire line, social trail, cow path, goat track, pig trail, or bootleg trail). Don’t ask me about those last ones — Wikipedia told me so. Desire paths are essentially man-made trails that don’t follow established paths. They’re usually shortcuts created by foot or bicycle traffic to avoid longer routes or supplement nonexistent ones. There is even an entire Flickr group and Reddit group devoted to this.

Why are desire paths important?

The great thing about photos like the one is that they remind us that people are willful and unpredictable. They will do what they want, and the best thing we can do as designers is find out what they want and create it.

For example, in some parks, planners visit immediately after a snowfall (when existing paths aren’t visible) to see where people walk naturally. The footprints in the snow can then be used as a guide to help plan new permanent paths.

In some of the UX seminars I’ve attended, instructors also like to talk about universities that plan campus walkways entirely around desire paths. These campuses would start out with very few actual sidewalks, and then rely on student traffic to indicate where additional paths should be. For example, why do you think Michigan State University looks like this from above?

Aerial views of Michigan State University

Aerial views of Michigan State University

Desire paths exist in the digital world

Desire paths exist both in the real world and on the Internet. If you’ve ever designed or managed a website, you’re probably familiar with the frustration of users who don’t do what you want them to do. How many of us have said: “But the button is clearly right there! How can they not see it?”

We’ve all fallen into the trap of thinking that just because something seems obvious to us, it must be obvious to everyone else. Step 2 clearly follows Step 1, and the “Next” button is clearly the way to get there. Unfortunately for us web designers, not everyone thinks the same way. Users will always find a number of strange, inexplicable ways to accomplish what they want. Or worse, if they can’t find the path that seems logical to them — they’ll simply leave and go somewhere else.

How to address desire paths on your website

Once you realize and accept the idea that your users don’t behave the way you think they should (and you’ll never force them to), there are a few things you can do to make sure your website helps them do things the way they want:

1. Look at your analytics

Look at the data in your Google Analytics dashboard (or whichever software platform you might be using). How are people navigating through your site? Where are they abandoning it? Can you find any way to improve page layouts, directions, hyperlinks, or other visual indicators?

2. Invest in click map software

There are a couple of different tools out there such as Crazy Egg that are fantastic for gaining insight into what people actually click on. For example, Crazy Egg shows you an actual heat map of clicks on any given page, as well as tells you how far down a page users scroll. It’s one of the best ways to find out exactly where your users’ desire paths are.

3. Do simple click testing

If you’re on a budget, there are quite a few affordable tools out there that will let you click-test a wireframe, mockup, or screenshot. UsabilityHub and Chalkmark by Optimal Workshop are two good examples. You essentially upload an image and ask testers to complete a task such as, “Find the price for this product.” The tool then lets you know where on your image people are clicking to find that information.

4. Conduct more extensive user testing

If you have the budget, you may also want to invest in more extensive user testing. This kind of testing allows you observe testers on your website or your competitors’ site — on a variety of devices — and hear them talk through their thoughts and actions as they complete a series of tasks you’ve provided. We use, for example, in order to discover how users perceive a brand, what they think of content and imagery, whether they can complete specific tasks, what they like or dislike about a website, where they would expect to find something, etc.

In conclusion…

Don’t get frustrated when people don’t behave the way you want them to. It happens everywhere — in every park around the world and on every website. See it as an opportunity to delve into the mind of your users and discover what they really want — and then create it.

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