Yesterday we were headed to a meeting, as we walked towards the venue we were presented with a classic dirt ‘desire path’.

It got us talking and thinking about this concept that has become something of a design icon. In fact, for some time the notion of a desire path, and the ubiquitous image highlighting it as a metaphor for the difference between design and user experience has been part-and-parcel of the designer presentation toolkit. The slide goes up and people respond, naturally, with empathy and support for the desire path makers. It’s nice to think that the numbers of people who have created their own (collective) way based on their needs, not the supposed needs to the ‘machine’ that built the formal path in the first place get a voice.

But the notion that what a group of people ‘does’ should override other user needs as their desire is visibly less obvious, is a bit one note.

To us, the desire path isn’t some goal of ‘natural design selection’ – in fact, it can be an emblem of a number of things that don’t make things better in our society and our design community.

So here’s our three rules for not taking Desire Paths as a design goal:

1. Desire Paths may ignore expertise at the expense of a single ‘desire’

Let’s call the opposite of the desire path, the designed path. Of course the jury may be out on whether specific paths are designed well or not, but just because a group has decided to create their own desired solution doesn’t mean the intended design was necessarily wrong. The designed path has to take into account a range of factors in determining its solution: regulation, safety, biodiversity, erosion, population movement, just to name a few.

These factors mean a range of experts must balance the constraints and opportunities available to come up with the best possible solution.  Do those creating the desire path know that whether where they are walking contains an under-threat species? Do they know that the rough path they are creating has led to a number of accidents? Do they know the path is driving a number of people into a place that is unsafe?

To take on questions like this experts are engaged. Town Planners, Tradespeople, Regulators, Environmental Scientists.

The designed path is a compromise, but it’s compromise based on expertise. Making the desire path is human nature, lauding it over the designed path risks celebrating ignoring necessary expertise.

 

2. Desire Paths can assume the intent of efficiency and speed trump all other intents

Most examples of desire paths (physical and digital) are driven by a singular intent – efficiency. That intent is often highlighted by the attribute of speed to complete a task. Speed may be critical for some but it’s not the only intent of a particular population. A desire path in this context may only represent an ableist route of a user with a specific need.

Defining the intent of a given design solution and the multiple users of that solution is critical to good design. With a clear intent the expertise mentioned above can be engaged. If we think that efficiency and speed are the only intent required for pathways (physical and metaphoric!) we dramatically underplay other possible experiences. We think intent more is layered and varied than that.

If efficiency and speed are the only goal then we can just start putting straight travelators through all National Parks now!

Again – there is absolutely no problem with a group of people having the efficiency as an intent, but as designers promoting that a singular intent should drive the solution and not pausing to consider user types and differing motivations is naive.

 

3. Desire Paths sometimes forget people built the designed path as well

There’s a curious way that the alternatives to desire paths are presented. The desire path is described as the way ‘people’ want to move. The ‘designed path’ is represented as some abstract thing that has just landed. ‘Put in by them’; ‘Delivered by machine’; ‘A result of bureaucracy’. It’s curious to us that these descriptions de-humanise the designed path. It’s a deliberate play on seeking empathy for the ‘human’ approach, but it says much about the willingness of designers to set aside what true service designs is – a multi-disciplinary process that seeks to ensure the people who deliver the service are as critical to its success as the people who use the service.

That for us is what’s at the heart of the desire path narrative. An inference that all design should match the needs and desires of a few (often an unmeasured few). Desire is great for design thinking, but expertise and a balance between delivery and user types is what is required for solid service design.

Desire paths can give you input; and understanding who uses them can give you insight; but thinking of them as a singular and correct indicator of better more humanistic answers to intentional design and decision expertise is a path to paradise that begins in hell.*

*DMA is not recommending all designers who talk about desire paths should be cast into Dante’s Inferno ;)