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.