Desire paths – the human instinct to pave our own route

"Elephant trails tell us about the endless human desire for choice" — Professor Andrew Furman

What are desire paths?

Desire paths, also known as desire lines, pig trails and Olifantenpad (elephant paths), are tracks created by erosion through the footfall of humans and animals. They are often a shortcut, but can also indicate the freewill of the user, the choice of an alternative rather than the pre-determined path in front of them.

They can be found in both urban and rural environments - anywhere that a pathway can be paved by choice rather than prescription. Urban planners use these informal footpaths to better inform the designs for cities and for the people who use them.

“There is no logic that can be superimposed on the city; people make it, and it is to them that we must fit our plans” - Jane Jacobs – Urban Planning Activist

Turning desire paths into planned walkways

An example of desire paths dictating the final design is The Oval at Ohio State University.They let students ‘mark out’ the most effective routes across the central grassy areas, then the permanent pathway system was built on top of the desire paths. This created routes which were naturally efficient. In this case, user centric design driven by an understanding of how people used the space, provided an optimum design solution.

The Oval at Ohio State University

A similar approach can be seen in cities around the world that experience a heavy amount of snow. In Finland, for example, city planners will study the trails left in the snow. These trails are the desire paths of those navigating the area on foot, giving the planners a clear idea of how people interact with the city.

A historic example of a desire path leading to a formal city path is Broadway in New York City. Broadway is one of the few areas of NYC to not be built to the grid-based system that applies to the rest of the city. Broadway was originally the Wickquasgeck trail, being the quickest path between settlements for Native Americans prior to colonisation. 

Broadway in New York City

Learning from the user

Considering the needs of the end user is central to successful design. As designers, all choices we make should be for the benefit of the target audiences to ensure that our creative output has a positive impact.

From the early days of retail, companies have been tracking the most effective path to purchase.

Most modern retail brands have long used people counters to monitor numbers of customers entering a store on any given day, which in turn can be related to sales peaks and troughs. Comparing the number of visitors to the number of sales gives a crude measure of conversion rate, which is a basic indicator of performance.

Paco Underhill and his team at Envirosell use field research such as direct observation techniques, intercept surveys and accompanied shops. His seminal book from 1986 'Why we buy, the science of shopping' has been recently updated to explore the impact of the digital age on customer behaviour.

Today's retailers use more advanced technology to anonymously track customer behaviours, such as using heat map cameras to help understand shopper movements, busy areas vs quiet, ideal product placement zones etc. This can be further enhanced by techniques such as eye tracking and facial recognition.

As retail designers, these technologies can help us define the optimal desire paths, to both enhance the customer experience but also improve the commercial performance. However, we should also never forget that the end user has their own free will and the ability to choose their own way!

Heat mapping the most effective path to purchase
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