Are your desire lines working against you?

April 19th, 2017


Follyway v line of desire

Last summer, in the front garden of the house two doors down, a curious thing occurred. The photograph above I’ve annotated so you too can be as puzzled as I was. You will see the driveway from the road up to the front of the house and you will also see the end result of the landscaping project carried out by a local design and build company – the new footpath or ‘follyway’ as I now call it. Arriving at the bottom à pied with the intention of reaching the house, I have yet to see a single visitor, or even the owners, use the follyway, and equally so, upon descent all observed pedestrians take the tarmac. Now, coming from a long line of gardeners I understand the need to terrace a slope and a pathway is a good doubling up of uses, but what this path fails to do is adequately challenge the most direct route. Here, without a doubt, the driveway wins, it is still the line of desire. Design fail.

Lines of desire have been a much documented phenomena for as long as we have been interested in shaping our environment. There are websites where enthusiasts can upload photos of new ones for philosophic discussion and there are whole local government departments devoted to mapping and managing those that appear in public spaces. In a nutshell they happen wherever a route from one thing to another is required and the ‘official’ pathway is considered too circuitous. Think bare earth worn diagonally across a college quadrangle’s grass, or the desperate urge to duck under the snaking cordoning at a queueless passport control, and you are firmly in the realm of desire lines. A landscape designer’s job is to predict the line of desire and control it, tease it off course just enough to make the tension and reveal of their scheme work, but not too much so that visitors go off piste and plough a new one.

In the interests of fair research I did grill the postman about his daily ascent to number 39, his response was:

‘I’ve never used the new path, it’s out of the way and there are too many steps – the drive’s not that steep.’

Of course the postman, let’s call him Bob, because that is his name, is contractually obliged to deliver the mail, so even if the long-term plan with our neighbour’s garden is to build a gate across the drive making the footpath no longer the follyway but simply the only way, he will have to use it, annoying and all as that might be. But desire lines exist in all types of space, so what if this situation at no. 39 was your company’s website, describing and selling your products, and Bob was your target audience? It’d be superb if your customer journey was the tarmac drive – smooth, no obstacles, direct, any discomfort pretty contained because your goal is in full sight nearby all the time. Not so superb if your buying pathway resembles the follyway instead – annoying, time-consuming, full of superfluous steps and ultimately arduous. In this instance, I’m afraid, the line of desire becomes a direct U-turn and a surf off to buy from someone else.

As anecdotal evidence of the catastrophic effect of a bad user journey a contact recently told me about a client of his, a global banking institution, who had discovered a horrifying 70% drop out of customers who had started the process of buying a particular product and never completed it. This awful statistic was entirely due to a badly designed online form. Yes, you may very well gasp.

With it proven science fact that we have an average attention span more fleeting than a goldfish – lines of desire in the digital environment in particular are now incredibly short.

So, if your customer journey is too convoluted, too broken up or too flabby beware the terminal U-turn. Paying attention to your digital lines of desire could prevent your website from becoming the folly that fails your business.


  1. What an excellent metaphor! I definitely notice that if I’m trying to access or buy something online I am very quick to cancel if it’s difficult or at all arduous. Love the link to garden paths of desire, great blog X

    by: Eryl on 19th April 2017 at 11:55 am


    • Thanks Eryl – I have been brewing this one since we discussed desire lines with such enthusiasm back in San Francisco! I find matching the thought processes of a customer wanting to buy something with the requirements a business has in order to sell that something utterly fascinating – so often other factors: limitations of technology (perceived or real), growth without proper planning and even an organisation’s political issues seem to be in charge of the way a business sells, but it’s my experience that successful businesses realise that the customer is really in charge. I am crusading to change the world one buying pathway at a time!

      by: shaell on 19th April 2017 at 12:30 pm


  2. As always, excellent commentary, as well as a further insight into your neighbours. Great to think of user experience on a different level, weak pun intentional.

    i) Something that I have to remind product owners of, and find solutions to, on a regular basis. I constantly notice obstructions to the ‘customer journey’, something I find more frequently than not in a certain ESP’s marketing efforts!

    ii) I recently got distracted (due to no fault of theirs) during a purchase and when I tried to leave the site, an auto pop-up was generated, asking me why I hadn’t completed the purchase. As a consumer with a short attention span and limited patience, it was great to have the opportunity to say ‘this is why’, as so many businesses (somewhat ironically) make it so difficult to give feedback. Though always on the cusp about pop-ups crossing the line of useful or annoying.

    by: Poppy on 20th April 2017 at 11:46 am


    • Poppy! Your comment about giving feedback is very pertinent I think, knowing when, how and what to ask for in feedback and then how to pick through it to improve your offering is part of the design process that most often goes wrong.

      by: shaell on 25th April 2017 at 5:05 pm


  3. Nice metaphor for the user experience. (Wonder where that gardener studied)
    I guess there’s a good reason why modelling the user experience is such a big deal for big Consumer businesses right now.

    by: annie . on 25th April 2017 at 1:32 pm


    • Hi Annie – funnily enough I know the company that did the landscaping and think they studied at a builders’ merchant, they invariably propose design schemes involving vast amounts of hard landscaping! Ode to the paving slab.
      Interesting you mentioned consumer business, of course all organisations are trying to sell something, even if it’s ‘just’ a message (I’m thinking charities or NGOs here) – wrong tone-of-voice, too much or too little information or information in the wrong place, these things and many others affect the buying pathway even if there’s no direct online sale involved.

      by: shaell on 25th April 2017 at 5:15 pm


  4. What a great article! This is so true. I think it might tap into something really fundamental in the human psyche. We have millions of little events in a day that are either really straight forward, or include some obstacle obviously in our way, like typing with my left hand at the moment; it feels so awkward and round about. I can see how easy things would be if I just bought my right hand into play, but I shouldn’t. Every item in the house we place in an easy or tricky location giving us peace or aggravation. Websites and customer service seem to aid or irritate – often the latter. The use of ads to delay you, just that little bit – less flow and more disrupted thinking. I think you are really onto something here. I knew, if I saved up reading this, it would be worth waiting for! Ann

    by: Ann Rappaport on 5th May 2017 at 7:18 pm


    • Fantastic comment as always Ann, thank you! And I do hope your right hand is improving. You’ve reminded me of a conversation years ago with someone who I was helping to develop a web presence for who told me with glee that they had been contacted by a search engine and asked if they wanted to have a sponsored ad panel down the side of their site. “Passive income!” They announced with delight. “Irritated clients and lack of focus on your goals” I thought with despair. Simplification + clarity = success and positive outcomes.

      by: shaell on 13th June 2017 at 3:35 pm


Leave a Comment