Website Success via Desire Lines

by Simon. Average Reading Time: about 4 minutes.

To paraphrase Plato

Human behaviour flows from three main sources: desire, emotion and knowledge

Desire lines are those well-worn ribbons of dirt that you see cutting across a patch of grass, field or park, often with nearby pavements, particularly those that offer a less direct route, ignored. In winter, desire lines appear spontaneously as trampled down paths in the snow. These paths are never perfectly straight but instead, they meander like a river this way and that, as if to prove that desire itself isn’t uniform or linear and (literally, in this case) straightforward. Desire Lines show that it is human to choose, but it is also human to choose what other people have chosen before. Be it for establishing a pattern, be it for convenience, or be it for not reinventing the wheel. In this way the Desire Lines become well-trodden and pseudo-permanent routes to a particular destination.

Desire Lines are the ultimate unbiased expression of natural human purpose

The term ‘Desire Lines’ originates from the field of urban planning in the early 20th Century.

An optimal way to design pathways in accordance to natural behaviour is not to design them at all

Extending the concept to websites

Broadening the concept of Desire Lines, it is also possible to see other impressions of human desire in websites, many of which can provide a commercial advantage to the particular website in question.

The web phenomenon is simply another way people find entertainment, communicate and interact. Whether the purpose of using the web is for enjoyment or employment, Desire Lines are are a such perfect expression of natural human intention that they become the utlimate design pattern for building successful and intuitive websites. It is easy to envisage users like an army of ants moving in single file towards their goal, not following set paths, but bypassing the planned route directly towards the news article, the video, indeed any product being offered by the website concerned.

Instead of websites providing classic access points via menus and taxonomies, they can employ different access points based upon user preferences and previous browsing history. This is heavily dependent upon capturing user’s details via a cookie or a login system, like at Amazon, but the benefits to the user can be far more rewarding.

So who is doing this?

Understanding the demographics of your users and your site usage is key to Desire Lines. The BBC website is a great example whereby search statics are monitored frequently. They adapt their web user interface and site structure based upon what people are typing into their search box thus making it easier for subsequent users to view the more relevant or interesting stories of the day.

Amazon makes Desire Lines more explicit and beneficial to their users through Listmania, recommendations, Customers Who Bought This Item Also Bought, What Do Customers Ultimately Buy After Viewing Items Like This?, Better Together, Recently Viewed Items, Wish Lists etc. In essence, Amazon does not provide a single standard way of finding an item, but relates each item together through a myriad of historic information from its user community. The user therefore has the option to search for an item, use the catagories, or click on links and begin their own desired user journey, which can be uniquely distinct from other users journeys or a mirror of those journeys.

Current TV takes the concept even further by showing content that is purely based upon what users want, or what they term as viewer-created content. Current slice the schedule into short segments into “pods” — each just a few minutes long. These pods profile interesting people on the rise, intelligence on trends as they spring up around us, and international news from new perspectives. Anyone who wants to contribute can upload a video. Then, everyone in the Current online community helps decide what should be on TV. You can join in at either stage — watch & vote or make video.

Limitations to Desire Lines

A key limitation, or possibly a challenge, to the successful adoption of Desire Lines concerns advertising revenues. For a user it is beneficial to be able to reached the desired destination as quickly and efficiently as possible, but for a website’s advertising revenue it certainly is not. To be simplistic and possibly cynical, many sites don’t want users to have an overly efficient experience as this limits page views and page impressions. The challenge, therefore, is to retain users on the website and provide them more relevant information and targeted advertising.

There are also implications on what is considered more relevant and what is not. The BBC to some extent decides based upon user searches, but this serves also to hide potentially captivating an important stories. One user’s preference isn’t necessarily the next’s, therefore creating an information bias. This may be even more problematic with our over-reliance on Google for finding information. The Google algorithms essentially decide what we find even though we are told that the sites listed are based upon relevance and popularity.

Finally, you can’t pave every desire line. To do so would end in a playing field not covered in lush green grass with a few tracks intersecting the green, but a concrete mess.

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