The Desire Path

Even if you’ve never heard the term, you’ve used a desire path. We all have.

It’s the shortcut with the well worn path between the two houses on your way to elementary school. It’s the path between the science building and the engineering building at your college, where the ornate fountain in the middle and the circular/intersecting sidewalks looked pretty from above when they designed it, but meant many people wouldn’t take the long way all the way around, and would instead cut across the grass.

Growing up in Montana, desire lines were especially apparent in winter, as kids on their way to school would figure out the “fastest” way to school, even if it meant trudging through a foot of fresh snow (and getting soaking wet in the process) to do so.

Desire paths (also sometimes called desire lines) are all around us. Human beings are creatures of habit. Once we realize something we do regularly, we often (sometimes unconsciously) seek out ways to “simplify” that task.

Consider a few examples; Trains, cars, and planes are all desire paths that are much faster than walking or taking a Conestoga wagon. The TV remote control, the “programmable” (arguably) VCR, the DVR, Netflix, are all desire paths that are much more convenient than turning the TV to the exact channel at the exact right time and putting your posterior on the couch for the duration of the show. The telegraph, telephone, cordless phone, and cell phone of course each became desire paths to communicating easily over a distance, with increasing flexibility.

Today, I see so much software designed with the thought “Oh, all the features that users will love in our product!” Wrong. Simply, surely, wrong. Technology (software, hardware, or most importantly, the fusion of both sold as a product), should never be about what users “could get done”. Done right, in a manner that users will fall in love with (and come back to buy again), it’s a matter of putting yourself in the place of the user and understanding what they want to get done – what they need to get done. It’s understanding the tasks they need to accomplish – the tasks they already do today, without your technology, but it’s your job to consider that entirely and take note of what’s standing in their way from accomplishing those tasks now in a faster, easier, more reliable, and more thoughtful way.

Look around you at any piece of technology that appears on a strong uptake. The technology that consumers are buying in droves. Look at it carefully. See something common in them?

  • The iPhone was a desire path to simplifying the process of making phone calls, listening to music, finding directions to a location, or finding something on the Web, wherever we were.
  • iTunes was a desire path to making your CD’s more portable and then simply a way to get new music (then movies, then… you get the idea).
  • The iPad is selling in droves likely because it is a desire path to accomplishing the relatively simple tasks that so many users wanted to accomplish with computers, such as e-mail or Web browsing, but without the overhead necessary to use a computer running Windows or even Mac OS (software management burden, hardware complexity, power management and power plugs, let alone upfront sunk costs to buy the device).
  • The Xbox Kinect is a desire path to home console gaming without having to learn arbitrary gaming controllers, instead using your hands to interact with the software directly.
  • Google is a desire path to helping people finding answers; for a long time, search engines were a great example of desire paths, as users would change in droves like a murmuration of starlings as a new search engine found things faster or returned more accurate results.
  • Facebook built the desire path many of us always wanted, to be able to more easily keep in touch with family and friends.
  • Siri, which I mentioned a few weeks ago, is also a good example of a desire path – it asks the questions, “how can we help users accomplish the tasks they already use their phone for, but faster and easier?” and “how can we help the user find things around them?”

Many of these ideas also had first mover advantage working for them, which is quite hard for a latecoming competitor to unwind. Often competitors will offer compensation or gifts of some type. Microsoft is doing this with Windows Phone 7, and Google is with Google+, both latecomers to their respective battlefields. However, compensation rarely results in loyalty. To overcome an entrenched first mover, the desire path you help the user establish must be shorter, more convenient – users must find that accomplishing things is faster or easier than with earlier, more established competitors in the field. You have to point out how long the established competitor’s path is compared to yours, but do so in a manner that truly emphasizes and empathizes with the way the user already walks that desire path – how they use your competitor’s device today. Playing up a new interface design won’t sell in volume. Users rarely buy based purely on a design, they buy based on emotion of how their life will be different if they make this purchase. They see themselves using this piece of technology – this software or hardware, and how it could improve their life.

I’ve seen quite a few startups recently who can’t really pitch what they actually do in any meaningful way. “We’re a social network for sharing pictures with people near you.” “We’re like Facebook, but limited to your closest friends.” Huh? How exactly are you helping the user? Why will they switch the way they live today, with the limited free time and energy they can dedicate, to using your solution? What’s in it for them? Do you understand how your users accomplish tasks today  can (and should) help guide design and business decisions – understanding how your users live, what they do, and what they wish they could do faster, easier, with less complexity.

If you’re a startup, or if you’re the world’s largest software company, or an electronics manufacturer and  you hope to broadly adopted and have huge sales, a huge user base, huge ad revenue (whatever your business model is), you must be able to answer this question about your users:

“We take <insert complex part of a user’s life> and we make it easier/more convenient by <insert how you provide a desire path they’ll fall in love with and use all the time>.”

There is an ugly side to the desire path also – the side that encourages humans to not exercise, eat convenient food even if it’s bad for them, or circle the mall parking lot for 10 minutes just to find a parking space when they could park in the farthest space and walk in in that time. Perhaps I’ll discuss that mode at another time.

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  1. […] about the intersection where security and usability collide, your end users will find their own desire path through the mayhem, likely making the easiest, and not usually the best, security […]