Everyone uses desire paths; they are “custom” trails created by pedestrians or cyclists that prefer the shortest route over the paved one to get from A to B. Studies that as few as 15 passages over a grass site are needed to create a new trail that other people will follow. The width of the path and it’s erosion indicate the popularity of the path. Authorities often try to block the user-generated roads by placing fences, signage or dense vegetation, but they always fail. The desire for natural navigation is much stronger. It’s also a great example that people will choose their own path. User behavior is difficult to predict or to control and that’s the reason we should learn to love the user’s erratic behavior. The inferfaces we design must be open and flexible. We must should allow it to be bended and adjusted in order to keep up with the users needs.
Check out this great video about olifantenpaadjes – Desire paths (in Dutch)
Most of us heard the story about the university campus design and the grass. The story goes that when the campus buildings were finished, the architect didn’t pave the roads; instead the whole site was planted with grass. After the first semester, paths appeared in the grass and the architect then came back and paved them just as they emerged. Not only were the paths in unusual places that the architect couldn’t have predicted; Non of the paths were straight. The design campus was based on user input. Instead of designing for the users, the architect designed with the users. A simple observation led to a smarter and user focussed design.
Stephanie Akkaoui Hughes inspired me with her talk on the Interaction ’14 conference. She also used the example of the dynamic campus design, but she also applied these insights to the design process. We should make our designs incomplete, impermanent and imperfect so they are flexible enough to adapt to the ever changing user context.
Because behavior and context are constantly changing in our digital world, we should allow the interface to be dynamic and to slowly evolve with the current user needs. We don’t know how people will use what we design. Everything we make is based on assumptions. Of course we’re capable of making a pretty good estimation, but we can never be sure… and that’s OK! In a digital world it’s more important to be flexible than to be right. We need to create more “open design” that allows further growth.