Paving the cowpaths: using architecture concepts to improve online user experience

I’m becoming increasingly fascinated with the parallels between architecture and web design. Dan Lockton recently published Architecture, urbanism, design and behaviour: a brief review – it’s an extract from his PhD thesis where he discusses how architecture can be used to influence behavior. It’s a long article, but well worth your time – I highly recommend it.

It’s full of architecture concepts that can be applied to designing for the web, but I want to discuss one in particular – the idea of “paving the cowpaths”:

One emergent behaviour-related concept arising from architecture and planning which has also found application in human-computer interaction is the idea of desire lines, desire paths or cowpaths. The usual current use of the term [“¦] is to describe paths worn by pedestrians across spaces such as parks, between buildings or to avoid obstacles “” “the foot-worn paths that sometimes appear in a landscape over time” (Mathes, 2004) and which become self-reinforcing as subsequent generations of pedestrians follow what becomes an obvious path. [“¦]

[T]here is potential for observing the formation of desire lines and then ‘codifying’ them in order to provide paths that users actually need, rather than what is assumed they will need. In human-computer interaction, this principle has become known as “Pave the cowpaths” “” “look where the paths are already being formed by behavior and then formalize them, rather than creating some kind of idealized path structure that ignores history and tradition and human nature and geometry and ergonomics and common sense” (Crumlish & Malone, 2009).

Particularly with websites, analytics software can take the place of the worn grass, and in the process reveal extra data such as demographic information about users, and more about their actual desires or intention in engaging in the process. [“¦] This allows clustering of behaviour paths and even investigation of users’ mental models of site structure. [“¦]

From the point of view of influencing behaviour rather than simply reflecting it, the principle of paving the cowpaths could be applied strategically: identify the desire lines and paths of particular users “” perhaps a group which is already performing the desired behaviour “” and then, by formalising this, making it easier or more salient or in some way obviously normative, encourage other users to follow suit.

This is such an interesting perspective on user-centred design. We all know that we need to design for real user needs, and not what we think they want, but it’s often so hard to do all our design work from that perspective. That’s where real-world analogies like this can be extremely helpful.

By starting a redesign project with an explicit goal to “pave the cowpaths” we’re always pulled back into that frame of mind. The same questions will keep jumping into our minds:

  • Do we have analytics to back up this behavior?
  • Are we sure this is what users naturally do on the site?
  • We know most users click on this navigation element to get things done – how do we make that behavior easier for them?

One real-world example we can look at is the recent announcement about upcoming changes to Windows Explorer. The team made a big deal about their data-driven approach to the design:

Over the years, Explorer has grown to support a number of different scenarios, many unrelated to file management ““ launching programs, viewing photos, playing videos, and playing music, to name just a few. We wanted to know which of these capabilities customers were really using. Using telemetry data, we were able to answer the question of how the broadest set of customers use Explorer in aggregate.

The resulting design leverages this data in a very real way:

The Home tab is the heart of our new, much more streamlined Explorer experience. The commands that make up 84% of what customers do in Explorer are now all available on this one tab.

You can make a strong argument that by following this approach Microsoft is paving the cowpaths they discovered. But let’s look at a sentence I left out of the original quote from Dan Lockton’s article:

The counter-argument is that blindly paving cowpaths can enshrine inefficient behaviours in the longer-term, locking users and organisations into particular ways of doing things which were never optimal in the first place (Arace, 2006).

This brings a very interesting perspective to the design. Are the most frequently used commands in Windows Explorer really the most effective way to accomplish user goals? Was there an opportunity to drastically reduce and combine certain paths to simplify the interface?

It’s certainly not easy to figure out how to balance paving existing paths vs. using that data to design systems that guide users to more efficient ways of doing things[1]. But it brings me back to the main point: an analogy like this forces us to think hard about these questions and at least make informed decisions about the design.

The alternative is to just let it happen and possibly get caught with a blind spot we didn’t even know existed.


  1. This is where qualitative user research methods like ethnography and usability testing can be extremely beneficial, but that’s a topic for another article.↩