Desire Lines, in Public and Online

After receiving a couple of emails this week regarding navigation changes I’ve made to a client’s site, I’ve been thinking about the idea of desire lines and how they apply to the online world also. People who visit websites and public spaces don’t always use the paths developers build for them to walk on.

Guests Go Off the Beaten Path
A user will often create their own route – making a path across the lawns instead of using the sidewalk, for example. In a public space, this creates “desire lines” in the grass from repeated use which are clearly visible, but on the web these visitor-created lines are not so easy to see.

In our case (as a real-world example), AloeRoot maintains a popular landing page for a customer, where we swap just one graphic on a semi-monthly basis to advertise different sections of the site. We made the scheduled change recently, and got messages from people who had lost their habitual method of getting to the content they wanted.

Maintain Your Landmarks
People had come to rely upon that graphic being there as a pointer – it had become an entrenched part of their daily navigation routine. There were links to the content in various other parts of the menu system, but any route that you make to your content can become the only route certain users will take. Web surfers thrive on routine.

Where we thought we were keeping the content fresh by changing the graphic regularly, the change disoriented the website guests, who felt that one of their landmarks had been removed and assumed that the associated content had also been discontinued.

Preserve the Landscape
The lesson here is that people become habitual users of webpages as well as parks, looking for their navigational reference points in the same places day after day. Messing with an established link structure in a website can be like building a wall across the middle of a walking trail – profoundly disorienting and frustrating for someone who must now find a new route to their destination.