A desire path is a path worn in the ground by people walking between paved surfaces. Usually just dirt, these paths often represent a shortcut. If you are familiar with Bethel University, you may have seen a few around campus, especially near the Freshman Hill area.
Park planners and architects have been known to visit new spaces after every snowfall to view newly created desire paths. When the snow covers the existing paths, people tread wherever they prefer.
When a person uses a website, they usually have a place they want to go. Rarely will users take the “sidewalk”, they will muddle around until they find their own way. In the web world, we don’t have the benefit of seeing the physical evidence, so we have to rely on feedback from users. We can also try to guess where desire paths may exist, and design the website accordingly.
Originally, we positioned what we’ve termed “task-based” navigation on the top row of the new site, as you can see in the screenshot. This included options like Login, Directory and Find People. We also positioned what we’ve termed “user-based” navigation in drop-down menu in the upper left corner that included options like Parents, Alumni and Prospective Students.
We decided to swap this location of the two menus in an attempt pave a potential desire path area. The drop-down menu has now become “Tools & Resources”, instead of “Information For”. Looking at the initial design, we wondered if we were creating too many paved areas that didn’t cut right to the content, but took a circuitous route instead. The decision was made in part because of the size of Bethel’s website. It has the potential to be daunting to first-time users and we determined that if would could get a user to quickly identify who they are, we could consistently and efficiently send them off in the right direction.
A parent, for example, may not know exactly where to go on his or her first visit to the site. Now that we have a navigation item on the top of the page called “Parents”, hopefully that will catch their eye and get them to click.
Website optimization is an ongoing process. Even after the new design has launched, we’ll continue to identify areas where the site can be improved and to pave the desire path areas for our users in order to create a great web experience.