PRODUCTHEAD: The strange attraction of desire paths

PRODUCTHEAD: The strange attraction of desire paths

PRODUCTHEAD is a regular newsletter of product management goodness,
curated by Jock Busuttil.

product falling into place #


Desire paths spring up as users’ needs and goals change

The effort paradox: the effort of forming a new path versus the desire to take the path of least resistance

In digital products we use analytical tools to help us observe desire paths

When a new desire path emerges, question your old assumptions — user behaviour is changing

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please recommend PRODUCTHEAD to a friend
i’d be ever so grateful :-)

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Let’s assume you can easily observe how people are using your product in real life. Then imagine that you’re seeing lots of your users doing the same weird thing.

Maybe they’re missing the obvious signposting and going their own way, or maybe they’re just using a feature in a way you weren’t expecting.

What do you do when you discover that people are using your product in an unintended way? Do you:

A) adapt the product to facilitate the way they’re trying to use it; or

B) put barriers and obstacles in the product to constrain their usage back to the intended way?

If you’re from a user-centric background, then A) might be the appealing choice. “The users are telling us how they prefer to use the product. How can we ignore such a strong signal?”

Or if you’re from a more prescriptive background, then B) might be the natural choice. “Our users don’t realise we’ve designed them a better way to do this. Let’s give them a clearer nudge back towards the right direction.”

These are not the only possible responses. There are situations when neither is the right approach.

1. Your users are trying to lead you in a direction you don’t want to go #

Before jumping to the conclusion that your users are showing you their preference, which you should immediately incorporate into your product, first you need to figure out why they’re doing that.

Are your users demonstrating a lack of awareness of the ‘right’ way to do something that your product is designed to do, which in turn may highlight a lack of clarity and usability in your product?

Or are your users showing you that they’re trying to do something entirely different to your product’s intended purpose, but this particular feature happens to help them with that?

Understanding the user intent is vital to planning your response. Only some meaningful research is going to help you figure that out.

Once you’ve got a better idea of what’s actually going on, one path might be leading you to a useful improvement to your existing product, which will hopefully align nicely with your existing product goals and strategy.

But the other path might be hinting at a pivot of that particular feature into a new and different product with its own set of goals.

Then you have to ask yourself whether spinning off a new product would make sense in the context of your current product strategy. Would this just be a distraction, or is now the time to embrace this new information and alter your product strategy?

So spotting a desire path in your product by itself does not necessarily point to a single, clear response. You still have to figure out why your users are creating the desire path in the first place, and what their intent is.

2. Your users are likely to cause or come to harm if they persist #

A warning sign at the Cliffs of Moher being ignored by walkers choosing to follow a dangerous cliff path
Cliffs of Moher; this is the warning sign pretty much everyone ignores. (Photo: Bruce Simmons)

Another situation when you might need to counteract the desire path you’re seeing is when your users are putting themselves or others at risk of harm by using your product in a way that wasn’t intended.

We see an example of such “off-label” usage with medical devices:

“For example, it has become routine to send patients home with intravenous (IV) infusion pumps. These pumps were originally designed for use in hospitals by trained medical professionals. IV pump manufacturers may not have anticipated such use or formally sanction it, despite the fact that it may be good for their business. Still, it is happening, and the situation raises concerns about laypeople using the product incorrectly.

“Matthew Weinger, MD … says such misuses are common. ‘You have situations where patients and their family members are operating infusion pumps at home,’ Weinger says. ‘For instance, a mother may be caring for a sick child. Should the manufacturer be held responsible if the mom turns off the alarms and there is a problem?’”

Addressing the Problem of Medical Device Misuse”, Medical Device & Diagnostic Industry (January 2005, retrieved 26 March 2023)

It is the medical professionals who are choosing to send the IV pumps home with patients, so it is debatable exactly how far the manufacturers need to go in order to stop this misuse happening (even if well-intentioned).

However, once a manufacturer becomes aware of a potentially harmful desire path like this, it becomes ethically difficult for them to choose to do nothing in response.

And even in this example there is an opportunity for them to create an IV pump designed specifically for use at home by non-professionals that would minimise the potential to harm patients through misuse.

You can see the same thing happening with some driver aids in cars. This is the tech that keeps the car in its lane on a highway (= motorway), and monitors the speed of the vehicle in front to adjust its own speed accordingly.

Manufacturers have already become wise to the tendency for drivers to place too much trust in the driver aids and no longer pay attention to the road (or take a nap in the back seat). This is partly why cars now detect whether the driver is alert and holding the steering wheel before allowing the driver aids to engage and stay active.

The drivers’ desired use of the product (yielding full control) is potentially harmful to themselves and other roadusers, so it’s entirely appropriate to prevent it happening — at least until vehicles become truly autonomous.

Final thoughts #

The desire paths in our products can be indicators of an unmet need or a use case more convenient to the user. However, they’re effectively a non-verbal way for the user to tell us what they want to do.

The difficult job remains for product managers to delve deeper than the stated ‘want’ to discover the underlying ‘need’. We still need to check whether it would be ethical, safe and worthwhile to meet that need, and how much of a digression from our product strategy it would be to do so.

Speak to you soon,


what to think about this week

What can we learn from shortcuts?

How do you build a product people really want? Allow consumers to be a part of the process.

“Empathy for what your customers want is probably the biggest leading indicator of business success,” says designer Tom Hulme.

In this short talk, Hulme lays out three insightful examples of the intersection of design and user experience, where people have developed their own desire paths out of necessity. Once you know how to spot them, you’ll start noticing them everywhere.

VIDEO: Design for real life

[Tom Hulme / TED]

What desire paths teach us about UX design

Researchers call this the paradox of effort and desire paths are a whimsical representation of this. They reflect this dual human desire; one for discovery by forging a new path and the other for simplicity by forging a quicker path.

A way to reduce interaction cost

[Smriti Swaminathan / Bootcamp]

Design principle: The power of desire lines

Once upon a time, there was a genius architect. After completing a new building, he decided to leave the courtyard and other grassy areas around the building without sidewalks. The idea was to let people use the building for a year and let their use form trails in the grass. Then lay the sidewalks on top of those paths.

Let your user show you the path

[Anton Nikolov / UX Planet]

Desire paths and customer-centric product development

The history of internet products is full of examples of desire paths being paved over and incorporated officially into the core offering of the product in which they originated. For example, two major elements of Twitter’s core product, the @-mention and the hashtag, were organically invented by their users before they were adopted by the company.

Pay attention to trends and off-label usage

[Will Stokes / ResearchGate]

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PRODUCTHEAD is a newsletter for product people of all varieties, and is lovingly crafted from a dusty shortcut across the grass.

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The Practitioner's Guide to Product Management book cover

The Practitioner's Guide To Product Management

by Jock Busuttil

“This is a great book for Product Managers or those considering a career in Product Management.”

— Lyndsay Denton

Jock Busuttil is a freelance head of product, product management coach and author. He has spent over two decades working with technology companies to improve their product management practices, from startups to multinationals. In 2012 Jock founded Product People Limited, which provides product management consultancy, coaching and training. Its clients include BBC, University of Cambridge, Ometria, Prolific and the UK’s Ministry of Justice and Government Digital Service (GDS). Jock holds a master’s degree in Classics from the University of Cambridge. He is the author of the popular book The Practitioner’s Guide To Product Management, which was published in January 2015 by Grand Central Publishing in the US and Piatkus in the UK. He writes the blog I Manage Products and weekly product management newsletter PRODUCTHEAD. You can find him on Mastodon, Twitter and LinkedIn.

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