What Do You Desire?

In Lauren’s class a week ago, we were talking about why research methods matter for the design process. One important reason comes down to mental models–or how a person imagines something works.

Just the other day, I experienced the challenge of mental models firsthand. I was working on a project in Photoshop after spending a significant amount of time working in Illustrator the previous week. The two applications look really similar, but when I started trying to manipulate shapes and use some of the tools I’d come to rely on in Illustrator, I kept getting error dialogue boxes.

I’m sure I hit the enter key harder than necessary in my effort to get rid of the error message. And I had a few choice thoughts for Adobe.

My experience and frustration happened because they way I thought something should work differed from the way it actually functioned.

This reminds me of a concept called the desire path. I’m sure most people have seen a desire path before–and have probably even contributed to making one. This kind of trail happens when people deviate from the intended path, usually for the sake of a shortcut. Like this.

Desire paths are a physical examples of workarounds. They visibly reveal what happens when the way something is designed and made manifest differs from what people expect or want.

And that’s part of the value of design research. Through observing people’s actions, we start to see behavioral trends. We notice patterns of how people naturally function, what they expect, where they get stuck, and where they carve out other routes.

So I’m starting to pay more attention to desire paths around me. It happens when I’m out for a run and see a shortcut tamped down by people before me, as well as at a coffee shop watching the barista move from the register to the espresso machine. By noticing, hopefully I’ll be better equipped to design products or services that more closely match the user’s mental models.

(Image: Kake Pugh)