I love desire paths. I love the name. I love the idea that urban planners took the fact that people are basically a bit of a pain and don’t do what they’re told and instead of getting upset they actually created a label for how it’s a kind of design force in itself. You rock, urban planners! (I’m probably over-selling it a bit there. It’s not all positive of course. Sometimes desire paths can be destructive or unsafe, and designing blocks to desire paths is also a part of urban planning.)
Desire paths are actually names for the worn down bits of path that have been created by lots of people taking that route, rather than by official paths being laid down. Rather than just seeing this as a bit of nuisance, some urban planners embrace this as a way of finding out where such paths should be laid, trusting the people walking the route to know the best way from A to B. The Wikipedia page gives an example of planners in Finland who visit parks after snow has fallen, to see the footprints of people who have trekked through without sight of the formal paths, which gives the planners a sense of where new purpose-built paths need to go.
Roy Lilley has already equated this idea with the NHS – in Twenty Paving Slabs he points out how when his local Morrisons noticed people using a shortcut between the supermarket and a car park, they invested in the titular paving slabs to create a path. He compares this to the NHS and to the use of technology in particular. For example, people often want to use email or text to get in touch with their doctors, like shoppers wanting to use the shortcut to get to the supermarket. But rather than investing in this and building those paths, the NHS puts up barriers and prevents people from doing what is easiest and most efficient for them.
I think research often has a similar problem. We focus very much on control and comparability, which is all right and proper, but can mean that we enforce barriers to people engaging with a treatment or service because we won’t let them hack it to make it more suitable and efficient. This might be taking us down the wrong path entirely (geddit?), if actually that process of people adjusting an intervention and finding their own shortcut to making it work is exactly what we should we be studying, to learn how interventions can work in practice.
This type of design I think has most in common perhaps with ethnography, where we try to immerse ourselves in the patient’s world and work out what they themselves actually do, and certainly has a lot in common with the idea of bricolage which has been suggested as a way of conceptualising how people get to grips with new treatments – specifically technologies – in real life. The idea is that people naturally hack things to suit themselves, and that embracing this, even encouraging it, is key to supporting people to engage with new interventions. Basically- don’t tell people where they need to go. Track their footsteps in the snow, and build the path to follow them, rather than the other way round.
PS. There is a whole Flickr pool devoted to desire paths here. I recognise you may not be experiencing my level of obsession with them though.
PPS. If you didn’t spot the Fleetwood Mac reference in the title, we’re probably not friends anymore.
Update: Mark Brown has a post here which also talks about the need for user-driven technology design, specifically when designing for people with mental health problems. Point 6 I think is especially relevant – “No matter how well you think you know a particular condition you can’t design anything until you understand the challenges it presents to those who experience it. If you want to design something that will help mental health difficulties, spend time with people who experience them.” Follow the folk who are trying to get from A to B!