One of the biggest challenges that designers must face is what to do when the users use a product or service in a different way than it was originally designed. Should they prevent it or, conversely, should they use it to improve their design? As we will see in this article, the solution is not always obvious.

There is a term originating from the field of urban planning and landscape architecture known as “Desire Line”. A Desire Line is a path carved into the ground that appears in gardens and natural areas, caused by the frequent passage of people. Desire Lines are shortcuts, alternative routes to paved roads.


A typical Desire Line (1)

The term Desire Line can be easily applied to other areas of design. Thus, Desire Lines could be described more generally, as “traces of use or wear that indicate preferred methods of interaction with an object or environment” (2).

What characterizes Desire Lines in any area of design is the fact that users consciously use a product or service in an alternative way than it was originally designed for. Users know clearly which is the “official” way to use the product or service, but they prefer to use it in a different way because it offers them some advantages (it is easier, faster, they get more profits, etc.).

An alternative use could be simply, for example, to assemble an Ikea furniture without following the instructions, but it can also manifest itself in an extreme way when the product or service is used in a totally differently way.

One case that exemplifies the latter scenario appears in a scene of the movie Apollo 13:

Due to an explosion in the spacecraft that is travelling to the Moon, the NASA’s flight controllers must find out the way to make the spacecraft immediately return to Earth. The Flight Director proposes to use the Lunar Module engine, the only device still working, for course correction. However, the representative of the company that built it disagrees, arguing that the Lunar Module was designed to land on the Moon. Given this, the Flight Director says: “I don’t care what anything was designed to do. I care about what it can do.


Apollo 13

In a typical situation of Desire Lines, the traditional response has been to build barriers or to design rules to change incentives of users. Given the limited effectiveness of these measures, many designers prefer to take advantage of the Desire Lines to improve their design (you know, if you cannot beat them, join them). So, returning to the gardens, designers just let the Desire Lines appear to know where to place the paved ways.

Twitter is a good example of this type of design. With Twitter’s API (Application Programming Interface) release, there has appeared a large community of developers who have created thousands of applications to optimize its functionality. The emergence of these applications and the activity of millions of users have transformed the original use. It is, in short, to harness collective intelligence to improve a product. Google is also known to use this type of design.

However, users are not always right.

People park in spaces for disabled drivers, pedestrians cross the road when the light is red, factories throw their waste into the rivers, divers degrade the seabed, patients self-medicate … Sometimes, users simply seek to maximize immediate gains.

In these cases, the challenge for the designer should be, in my opinion, to guide the user to the proper use of the product, resource or service in a non-intrusive way. Obviously, learning from user behavior remains important to improve the design, but Desire Lines can be detrimental to the whole and for the user itself.

An example of non-intrusive correction of a harmful Desire Line was stated in a previous article in this blog, entitled “Small actions that result in great changes”.

In this article, I explained how the users of a crowded train station in Barcelona often blocked the entrance gate to exit the station. The solution to this problem was very simple. In moments of great out flux of passengers, the doors of the entrance gate were closed while the doors of the exit gate remained opened. The introduction of a small obstacle (the doors must be pushed to open) discouraged passengers, who opted for the easiest path, the exit gate.

As shown in all these examples, in order to design an efficient product or service, it is important to be familiar with the motivations and the scale of preference of the user (3). In short, the designer must put the sociologist hat on and not presuppose how and why the users behave as they do.

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(1) Image from www.antarcticiana.blogspot.com.es/2010/10/desire-line.html

(2) Lidwell, William; Holden, Katrina; Butler, Jill (2010). Universal Principles of Design.

(3) Regarding to this point it can be very interesting to read the report “21st Century Design” by the design company Artefact.