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What Desire Paths Can Teach Us About User Experience [+ TED Talk Video]

By Lauren Miller

What Desire Paths Can Teach Us About User Experience [+ TED Talk Video]

Robert Frost said that taking “the road less traveled by...made all the difference,” but what happens if you ignore that advice and go down the path that’s well worn?

Well, according to Tom Hulme’s TED Talk from 2016, What can we learn from shortcuts?, you’re going down the “desire path,” or the path of least resistance.

You’ve likely seen these desire paths everywhere.

Many of them are literally worn pathways of dirt that form a shortcut between paved walkways or roads because enough people have determined that THAT is the best way to get from point A to point B -- not exactly the way the urban planner designed.

Desire paths are reminders that design works best when the needs of its users are taken into account. This reigns true in the real world and the digital.

The Path of Least Digital Resistance

You’re probably wondering why I’m talking about dirt walkways on a marketing blog.

Here’s why.

In marketing, we talk a lot about having the end user inform our work.

From creating target audiences to mapping out the buyer’s journey, purchasing paths, and shopping cart flow, as marketers we’ve come to realize that buyers can and should inform their own experience.

We need to deliver what they want and reduce the friction it takes to get there.

The pathways we should care about most are digital desire paths. Those paths of least resistance that consumers want and the ones they will be most willing to follow.

Where do digital desire paths come into play in marketing and design? User experience.

Hulme calls desire paths “the point where design and user experience diverge.” Our goal as digital marketers is to make designed paths and desire paths one and the same on our websites.

Digital desire paths are born from giving users the best possible experience, and they’re absolutely everywhere.

Hashtags, keyboard shortcuts, featured snippets, and quick buy buttons were all born out of this goal.

“People are resourceful. They’ll always find the low friction route,” says Hulme in his TED Talk and it’s up to us to find these “low friction routes” and create them for our users (or, even better, to find them before they do.)

Smart businesses are constantly innovating ways to make things easier for their consumers and they are the ones that reap the results.

How To Find Your Users’ Digital Desire Paths

Now that you know the benefits of desire paths, how do you find the ones that are forming for your business? Here are some ideas.

  1. Heat Mapping Software. Installing software like Lucky Orange on your website allows you to literally see the paths that users are taking as they navigate. Where are they clicking? What pages are they most interested in getting to fast? The insights are endless and can inform how you can help these users along in their journey.

  2. Website Cookies. Any good business knows that the info mined by cookies is gold for marketers (as long as you let users know you’re gathering it). So milk those cookies for all they’re worth by analyzing things like product preferences and shopping cart data to find the path of least resistance to a sale.

  3. Ads Analytics. Running Facebook Ads or Google AdWords campaigns? Great! Take the data you’re garnering and put it to good use to find out about buying habits first hand.

  4. Just Ask. Surveys take the guesswork out of knowing what your audience wants. And monitoring comments on your blog and social media channels can mine some real gems.

Once you see some solid, running trends, you can start upping your user experience game and pave those desire paths. Before you do anything, take seven and a half minutes to watch Tom Hulme’s TED Talk. I guarantee it will be the most interesting seven and a half minutes you spend today.

P.S. As a prize for scrolling this far down in my blog, enjoy this Subreddit full of photos that people took of desire paths.

Free Assessment:

How does your inbound marketing measure up?
Take this free, 5-minute assessment and learn what you can start doing today to boost traffic, leads, and sales.


User Experience
Published on March 30, 2019

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