Living near a planned city – in this case, Milton Keynes – I’m used to an urban environment that’s rich in greenery (welcome) but equally rich in meandering, winding footpaths. After living here for the last 17 years (during which time I have only occasionally caught myself whistling “Hotel California”), I’ve still to become totally immune to the annoyance of following an agreeably landscaped but snaking route that may or may not get me where I’m trying to go – even when I can see my destination on the horizon. Perhaps it takes an outsider’s eyes to see things afresh, but Bill Bryson’s description of his first encounter with my adopted home in his Notes from a Small Island is one I’ve treasured since I first read it (you can read a longer version of this extract online):

From a hilltop I spied a sprawl of blue roofs about three-quarters of a mile off and thought that might be the shopping mall and headed off for it. The pedestrian walkways, which had seemed rather agreeable to me at first, began to become irritating. They wandered lazily through submerged cuttings, nicely landscaped but with a feeling of being in no hurry to get you anywhere. Clearly they had been laid out by people who had thought of it as a two-dimensional exercise. They followed circuitous, seemingly purposeless routes that must have looked pleasing on paper, but gave no consideration to the idea that people, faced with a long walk between houses and shops, would mostly like to get there in a reasonably direct way. Worse still was the sense of being lost in a semi-subterranean world cut off from visible landmarks. I found myself frequently scrambling up banks just to see where I was, only to discover that it was nowhere near where I wanted to be.”

For an updated opinion on Milton Keynes, you can try Owen Hatherley’s recent A Guide to the New Ruins of Great Britain – an unexpectedly absorbing (and entertaining) read, but not the book that recently got me thinking about paths again. The trigger was Edgelands, written by two poets (Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts) to hymn those ambiguous places where towns frey into countryside: here you find both new business parks and abandoned industry as time and economics gerrymander boundaries between town and beyond. I’m confident it’s a niche read, despite picking up the Royal Society of Literature’s Jerwood Award for non-fiction, but to shrug at the subject in focus would be to miss some beautiful and thoughtful writing.

The following short extract is, I admit, no way to back-up my own last sentence, but it did set me thinking:

Planners love telling us which way to walk. Our built environment – especially our mercantile spaces, shopping centres and the like – is carefully constructed to control footflow and footfall. But we do like to collectively, unconsciously defy them. This is why we see desire paths in our landscape. Desire paths are lines of footfall worn into the grounds, tracks of use. They are frowned upon in our national parkland, where they are seen as scars and deviations. PLEASE KEEP TO THE FOOTPATH. You often see desire paths in public gardens and greened city spaces, taking paved paths ‘off road’ into new trajectories, along riversides and riverbanks.”

Desire paths are, in short, markers that show where we want to go and how we’d prefer to get there, rather than paths that have been determined for us. While it’s easy to read acts of defiance in them, they are also created by instinct and expedience – and the simple logic that the shortest route from A to B is rarely via F, changing direction at B, and passing under the section from G to H at underpass E. As Farley and Symmons Roberts point out, “Nobody decides to make a desire path. There is no ribbon cutting”.

The idea of desire paths has, however, had real applications. In New York, the reconstruction of Central Park originally included no footpaths: the planners waited for desire paths to emerge before effectively formalising them. Other applications have been less literal, as usability and design expert Carl Myhill, former Head of User Experience for General Electric Network Reliability Products and Services, documented in a conference article Commercial Success by looking for Desire Lines (download as a PDF). As he states in the abstract for his article:

Rather than trying to understand user needs from a focus group, being alert for desire lines will show you users’ actual purpose more directly. Smart companies have an obsession with what is typed into their Search facility, analysing hourly this pure expression of what people want from their sites.”

This approach – which he also links to (inter alia) software development and error reporting, the ergonomics of workstations, road humps, cooker control design and traffic calming – perhaps turns the ideas of Thaler and Sunnstein’s Nudge (see our review) through a few degrees: the model here is not to nudge our behaviour into something externally judged as desirable, but to watch what works for us in reality and use that to guide the provision of goods and services. As he explains, paying attention to desire lines and human behaviour could prevent household fires and may have previously changed election results.

My mind, however, was on HR issues and people management. Remembering examples like the UBS dress code debacle (see our earlier article), many people’s working lives are far from free of processes and practices that build in a dog-leg between A and B, force our metaphorical spines into unnatural positions and generally feel as if any invisible hand that might be at work isn’t the ghost of Adam Smith but rather of someone with a ‘I’ve planned it this way, so this is how it will happen’ mindset. Like the footpaths that Bill Bryson trudged along in Milton Keynes, they probably “looked pleasing on paper” to those designing them, but failed to enhance the end user experience in practice.

Using the information and feedback that desire lines provide – not just where we decide to walk, but all the other things we do where instinct kicks in – means adopting a listening and watchful mindset, one that wants to learn rather than just broadcast its own message. But any broadcaster’s message is more readily accepted when the broadcaster is clearly not just mindful but informed about the audience.

At the very simplest level, one clear form of desire line for HR is the number of people deciding the best route for them is the one to the door. If your staff talents are beating a path away from you, it’s not just time to ask questions – it’s time to make other destinations equally attractive.