Desire paths and how old habits die hard

Thursday, May 10th, 2012 at 8:59 am

I find the concept of desire paths really fascinating. Over the winter in Gordon Square in London half the park was covered in hazard tape to allow the grass trodden to death by walkers over a desire path to heal. The tape is gone now, the path healed — but no doubt the path will re-emerge soon enough. (In fact I only realised it had healed as I was walking over the path itself — cutting across the grass).

While desire paths are essentially short cuts made by users within a system, I noticed something the other day: when the system goes out of its way to create a new short cut specifically for users, often it’s hard to get users to adopt this easier option.

For me I realised this at Euston Underground station last week. From the Tube station ticket hall, there had been two escalators (one up, one down) and a stair case in the middle. The stairs were rarely used and for the past several months they had been blocked off while an escalator was put installed to replace them.

Heading out of the ticketing platform, the escalators are on a sharp right angle off a straight walk. Without realising I went for the first up escalator, which already had a queue forming. But then I realised the new escalator was now running right next to the original one, but with no one using it.

Commuters had become so used to the walk straight/turn right/queue for first escalator routine virtually no one had noticed the new one.

Over time Euston commuters will obviously notice the new escalator. But for me the most interesting aspect of this was how they had become so preconditioned to the system they failed to see a new and better way to navigate the system.

Perhaps a sign pointing to the new escalator might’ve helped? There are two solutions for new features such as this: either promote it or just wait (and hope) users find it.

Unfortunately, you can never guarantee users to find such things — so perhaps promotion of new features is always the best route.

2 Responses to “Desire paths and how old habits die hard”

  1. jesse says:

    Nice one Joff! I recently came across this Flickr pool…

    http://www.flickr.com/groups/desire_paths/pool/

    In a natural setting we move on the path of least resistance – no one’s missing these short cuts!

  2. James says:

    That’s a good group… I wish I would have documented more desire paths, I always notice them but always forgot to photograph them!

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