Desire paths refer to the trails that form on natural surfaces due to foot traffic, usually in and around sidewalks in formally-planned spaces. They reveal where people really want to walk—preferred alternatives to concrete sidewalks. They’re interesting because they show our willingness to reject formal design and find alternatives that suit us better. As researchers, they remind us to look closely at how people interact with formally-designed processes and spaces and notice deviations from what the designers may have intended.
When ethnographic fieldwork uncovers such deviations, it’s important to explore them in earnest. Carefully examine your participants’ intentions and level of awareness around a deviation. In cases where people find a compelling alternative path, companies can choose to “pave” it by integrating it into a product or service. Twitter, for example, integrated hashtags after observing people using it as an ingenious way to link their tweets.