Desire Lines: Let Your Audience Shape Your Design

Have you ever been walking a paved path through a park and come across an unpaved shortcut? The shortcut was clearly not designed by the developers of the park, but it’s clearly a route people before you have taken and it’s clearly a quicker way to get from point A to point B. Do you take the unpaved path?

The path had been made over time as more and more people chose to walk the straight line across the field as opposed to walking the paved path around it. The path was a perfect example of a desire line. Don’t fight desire lines. Learn to embrace them.

Desire Line

What are Desire Lines?

Desire lines are the unpaved paths that are developed over time by human and animal footfall. They typically represent the shortest or most easily navigated route from one point to another. Their size represents the amount of demand for taking the desired path over the designed path.

They’re the path people choose to take as opposed to the path designers want or expect them to take. It doesn’t matter how beautiful you’ve designed the landscape, if you fail to provide a convenient way to get from point A to point B people are going to carve out a shortcut.

As designers we want to control how people perceive our designs and keep people on our predefined path. We create lines for the eye to follow so they notice what we want them to notice. We direct them to the actions we want to them to take. We create navigation through our sites for how we expect people to travel our web pages.

And then along come real people who use our sites and view our pages, however they like. These people are creating desire lines through our websites. We can try our best to force them to do it our way, but they won’t. They’ll either do it their way or leave. A better approach would be to understand where the desire lines in our sites being created and adjust our designs to those desire lines.

We can apply the idea of desire lines to visual flow in your design, creation of new content, increasing traffic into your site, and how people generally interact with your website.

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How to Determine the Desire Lines on Your Site

When people can contribute anonymously without worry of social repercussions, honest answers emerge. When aggregated, these honest answers will represent collective intelligence. We want to get at that collective intelligence so users of our systems can let us know how we can improve them and design them better.

How do we understand what our audience wants, what it desires? What can we do to determine desire lines on our site?

  • In-Site Search – perhaps the best way to understand the desire of your audience. When people type something into a search engine they are telling you what they want, what they desire.
  • Heat Maps – show you where people click most frequently on your page. They show you what part of your design are attracting attention and what part of the page people are interacting with.
  • Click Paths – show how people travel through your site. They show the actual paths people use when interacting with your website
  • Analytics – can show you what parts of your site are used the most and what paths lead people into your site.
  • Tagging – If you let users tag content on your site you allow them to tell you how they classify your content. You allow them to speak in their own words and teach you their vocabulary.
  • Ratings – Star ratings on your content and comments on your content or measuring how well your content fares on social bookmarking sites lets you know what your audience prefers.

Much of the above is about analytics, about measuring how people are using your site. These statistics, particularly in-site search show what users want from your website, not what they say they want, but what they actually want and do.

You can try seeking direct feedback from users in the actual moment they are using your site. While feedback can be an expression of desire keeping in mind that this feedback is not truly anonymous and it’s what people say they want, which may not be what they really want.

Keep in mind that the desire of one or two individuals is not a desire line or at least not a strong desire line. It takes more than a couple of people to carve a path through a field.

Desire Lines not found in Search

Responding to Desire Lines

Understanding desire lines is only part of the equation. Knowing what people want is one thing. Acting on that information is another. What can you do with the information you gather?

If people are actively searching for things on your site you should first determine if you have what they want somewhere on the site. If you do it likely means people can’t find it so your response should be to make that content more obvious. Is it something you can add to your main navigation? Could you find some way to feature that content better? Maybe you need to link to that content from within the pages where people are searching.

If that content doesn’t yet exist on your site, create it. People are searching for it. They expect you to have it somewhere so create it. Give people what they desire.

Similarly when looking through your stats discover the content people are finding and are consuming and give them more of that content. Look for themes in the content people are finding and consuming and let it shape your choices for future content.

This can be a good way to increase your search traffic. If you notice certain pages of your site are doing well pulling search traffic, you can create new and similar (though not the same) content on the same topic. It could be a sign that your site has reached a level of authority where it can compete on keywords around that topic. By adding more content around the same keyword theme you can bootstrap your traffic from long tail keywords toward keyword phrases found in the head of search.

Look at the other sites sending traffic to your site and strengthen your presence with those sources. Is one site sending you traffic month over month? Build a relationship with the people behind that site. Does one article consistently send traffic back to your site? Help promote that article. Get more people to enter that path. Make that path back to you site wider.

Did you create a series of posts expecting that people would read through them linearly? Are they? Or do people stop reading after one of the posts in the series? Do they skip one of the posts in the series? Learn from how people are clicking between your pages to restructure these click paths to be more in line with the paths people actually take.

Through heat maps and eye tracking you can understand where people are looking and clicking on your page. Is this where you want them to look and click? Can you modify your designs to nudge them back to the path you want them to take? Could you instead move more important elements on the path they are already taking?

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Examples of Desire Lines Shaping Design

In Finland, planners are known to visit their parks immediately after the first snowfall, when the existing paths are not visible. People naturally choose desire lines, which are then clearly indicated by their footprints and can be used to guide the routing of paths.
Wikipedia

Microsoft began the practice of requesting you to submit a crash report when something goes wrong while you’re using their operating system. You may or may not send those reports, but if enough people do, it helps Microsoft understand how you were actually using their system, especially at the moment where you encountered a problem. Others have followed by requesting you submit a crash report when having a problem with their software.

Amazon lets users review products and reviews of products and tracks what you purchase in order to recommend similar items.

Twitter is a company that has grown almost entirely out of desire lines. Twitter began as a system to post 140 character messages with little other structure. It has allowed it’s users to shape how the service works. It was users who created @replies, retweets, and hashtags. Twitter has also grown through its API which has let developers create new features based on what Twitter users are asking for. Most of how you use Twitter today was shaped by the desire lines of your fellow users and not by the people behind Twitter.

Only after the desire lines form does Twitter pave those paths.

Summary

Designers do their best to anticipate what an audience wants and how it will interact with a design. We often try to control how people will interact with our designs. Desire lines show how people are actually using your design. They show how people want your website to behave.

It’s in your best interest to understand the desire lines of your audience. Learn how they currently use your site and what they wish your site could be. Collect information and let strong desire lines emerge.

Don’t be a slave to desire lines. Part of your job as a designer is to shape the desire of your audience.

If desire lines are narrow think twice before making changes. When desire lines are wide think about what you can do to accommodate them. When a significant percentage of your audience is expressing a desire for something it’s usually best to give them what they want.

Desire lines are an ultimate expression of human desire or natural purpose. An optimal way to design pathways in accordance with natural human behaviour, is to not design them at all. Simply plant grass seed and let the erosion inform you about where the paths needs to be.
Commercial Success by Looking for Desire Lines (PDF)

Download a free sample from my book, Design Fundamentals.

17 comments

  1. Most informative and interesting!
    I think you have a problem with the link just after the title “Responding to Desire Lines”. I had to read the paragraph in the source code… ;)

    • Thanks Adrien. I fixed the paragraph. The link had one double quote and one single quote in the href. I just had to change the single quote and the paragraph came back.

      Appreciate you letting me know. I guess I proofed the post a little too fast.

      I’m glad you enjoyed the post even if you did have to read the source code.

  2. Great article, and a great explanation of desire lines. I guess I had the idea in my head before, but I’d never knew there was a name for this concept.

    In terms of analysing users desire lines, we’ve developed a new service at http://www.intuitionHQ.com – it’s a really simple, easy to use site, and all it does is track where people click and how long it takes them to click. This is good because it doesn’t flood you with information, but gives you enough information to be useful and help you tweak your designs.

    If you are interested in giving it a go, you can flick me an email or reply to me on twitter @intuitionhq I can set you up with a free test so you can try out our service and see what I mean.

    Cheers, and keep writing the great articles.

    Jacob.

    • Thanks for the link Andy. It doesn’t strike me as quite the same thing though. Maybe I’m interpreting psychogeography incorrectly, but it sounds more like observing the emotional response people have to the geography in order to get them to take a path other than their usual route.

      Again maybe I’m misinterpreting, but I think psychogeogaphy and desire lines are two different the perhaps related ideas.

  3. I’d be interested in some free tools for getting at some of the information you list. Or maybe I’m just missing the knowledge of how to get it, such as in-site search. I assumed Google Analytics provided search terms from outside the site. Heat maps, click paths? Are there easy ways to get this info?

    • Ellen most of the things I listed can be tracked with any analytics package like Google Analytics.

      Crazy Egg provides heat map tracking. They used to have a free limited service, but I think they now charge $9/month for what used to be free.

      There are some free open source heat mapping applications like ClickHeat, which you’d have to install and set up on your site.

      Click paths you should be able to get from your analytics package. In Google Analytics if you view any page in top content and then click navigation summary it shows you how people entered that page and where the visited next.

      You can try clicky. The do have a free plan that limits you to tracking one site.

  4. I really like the piece of information about the Finnish planners! I’d say it’s like when you’re swimming in a river : you cannot force your customers to swim against the stream, you must go with the flow! :)

    • That’s a good analogy. I suppose you could try to swim against the current, but you’re not going to get very far. The current is still going to take you where it wants to go.

  5. Thanks a lot, your blog has some of the most insightful design posts I have come across. They keep me thinking about the fundamentals of design which is what a lot of web designers are forgetting these days.

    I look forward to all your future posts!

    • Thanks for the kind words Larry. I’ve been trying to focus a lot on fundamental design principles in part because I’ve teaching and reteaching them to myself and in part because you don’t see a lot of people talking about this stuff online.

      It’s certainly out there, but you have to dig for some of it. Too many design posts seem focused on trends and tricks. There’s a place for that, but I think there’s a lot of room for things like the fundamentals too. And a few years down the road the trends will be gone, while the fundamentals will be exactly the same as they are today.

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