Desire lines

BA Interaction Design Arts Year 2—An investigation of how desire lines indicate how we interact with the world around us.

Part 1—Getting to know desire lines.

Affordance: “This is how it should work.”

Desire lines: What people actually want, the potential of an designed object or experience.

From 99 Percent Invisible’s article on Desire Paths

The photo above is the textbook definition of a desire line: a path is designed with an affordance for users to go around this patch of grass. Yet people desire the shortest path possible, so these shortcuts form, hence the desire line, and are usually reinforced with increased realization of it’s advantages.

In order to design for interactions, it’s important to understand desire lines, therefore understanding ideas and observations of how people interact with the world around them. Here’s some desire lines’s I’ve documented over the weeks:

Door handle at Sadie Cole’s HQ
The entrance to the Sadie Cole’s HQ gallery on Kingsland Road is a very tall door, so it would make sense to have a large, proportional handle to go with it. However, the physical size of the handle in comparison to a human using it provides the gesture of an affordance that one can use their whole weight to lean in order to open the door—which is true when you go into the gallery. Coming out is a different story though.

Coffee loyalty cards:
I spent most of my first weeks in London checking out different cafes, hoping to find one that I could see myself doing work in consistently. Since then, I’ve accumulated quite a few of these loyalty cards, which is an interesting contrast to my changing rotation through these cafes. I do have a favorite that I frequent regularly now, leaving these most of these momentos from my coffee hopping adventures unfinished. As the cards were intended for people to complete, they serve as an indicator for me of how much I preferred one cafe over the other.

Putting out cigarettes
It’s common for public litter bins in London to have a rubber plate or tray on the top to extinguish and discard of cigarette butts. This trash can doesn’t have that feature, yet its flat surface allows people to easily assume that it has a similar affordance to those waste containers with a stubbing plate.

Part 2—A book of (h)ours.

I chose to spend my twelve hours by documenting a barista named Alice at a nearby cafe called Friends of Ours. The location is small enough where I could sit at a table and watch a waiter move within the entire space, therefore easily fitting in as a customer rather than faux-private investigator.

I watched the way she held the plates, the means she would take to move around the cafe, how her behavior changed depending on how many people were present inside the cafe. Eventually I was able to pick up her routine, starting from her first interaction with guests as they came into the cafe, and upon paying for their check at the end of their time. There were interesting combinations of tasks she grouped together, such as bringing people glasses and the pitcher of water in one hand, and menus in the other. Was this because they were all placed on the same shelf? (Alice said yes.)

A small portion of the notes I took during the twelve hours of observation

I decided to focus on the places of “rest” in Alice’s interaction with the cafe space. On a map of the cafe layout, I marked down every moment she paused and rested against the counter, whether it was waiting for a customer to finish their meal or if there was a lull in customer traffic.

I started to notice that there were some areas that she stood in longer than other, and noted her posture, whether if she was leaning against or had hands on the counter, and how many hands. Hands on the counter began to indicate places of temporary rest, no more than seven seconds. Most of these periods were occupied with light conversation with co-workers, or a quick scan of the cafe to see if customers were ready to pay especially as she stood in areas with a clear line of sight in the cafe. Even though the pattern I observed seemed to be partially a result of routine, I had questions about outside influences in her behavior.

When I asked Alice about it, she commented on the size of the cafe as “not ideal.” While you can easily see the floor without having to run around, the limited means of moving around are often congested due to the amount of people they have to serve that are typically in occupying the space. This was particularly observed in the area by the till, which is near where most people will sit, but also mostly intended for people who come in with to go orders.

She also emphasized the importance of not being in the way, whether it was for customers in the space or her fellow team members, and to do this successfully she needed to be constantly alert. Most of how she learned to move around the space, or where to stand and wait, was something that she picked up by observing throughout her many years in the service industry. It’s something that is learned through muscle memory, and slowly becomes instinctual. It’s the idea of instinctual learning it’s more effective learning from watching your surroundings versus having someone tell you what to do, something that was reminiscent of a scene from the film, “The Founder,” describing how the first McDonald’s fast food restaurants were taught to operate efficiently by going through the motions.

A scene from the film, “The Founder”

Listening to her comments made me think of the saying, “Hang on tightly, let go lightly.” The space she occupies so is so fluid and almost like a dance—dependent on time, people, flow, and her role. To maximize her efficiency, it becomes imperative for her to navigate between macro-level details and a larger peripheral sense, and not to be bound to the physical limitations and the additional constraints of moving with other people in the cafe space. But will this work if only one party in the space is moving in awareness of everything else that is occurring? It takes two to tango…

Biggles brought up the possibility of a “golden triangle” in play at the cafe, explaining for it’s observed routine and efficiency. However I ruled this out because of how the kitchen is on a separate floor, and how the space was obviously very defined/constrained by it size.

Alice’s (visible) work flow upon customer arrival:
1. Decides table to seat and directs customer to table.
2. Brings menus, water pitcher, and water cup.
3. Takes orders from customers.
4. Goes to till and digitally inputs customer orders.
5. Hears bell from kitchen, signaling that order is ready.
6. Brings order from kitchen to table.
7. Brings check upon customer’s completion of meal.
8. Takes payment at customer’s table.

I then briefly struck conversations with various people I would sit next to in the cafe, asking about their experiences navigating through the space. Most people said that they would only go up and pay the check if a host had not come by and provided them with the bill, and they felt like it was time to go. However, this sentiment was only shared by people who visited the cafe less often, while frequenters commented that waiting for a host to come by with the bill was the typical routine that they had picked up over the course of their visits. In theory, if one was a seasoned visitor, guests would only get up from their seat to go to the bathroom or to leave, minimizing the amount of time the small “hallway” of space would be congested.

Part 3—Help, hinder, or explain.

To begin to illustrate and explain the problems I had observed, I first took a timelapse, thinking I could edit it to show where people spend the most time—organic opacity effect. I didn’t feel like this was very effective though, due to the angle where I could place the camera, and didn’t feel like there would be any additional value in communicating if I decided somehow manipulate the footage further.

Attempt of a timelapse

To get a better sense of the space, I decided to make a 3D drawing of the cafe in order to recollect how the cafe is organized.

An animated overview of the cafe space

While drawing this, the high, frequent amount of activity that happens in this small space of reminded me of being in a plane. A commercial airplane runs quite similarly to the cafe, where there are a small number of people serving a larger body of passengers, all in a very strict and confined space. However, there is the idea that rules for the airplane are set and known: if the seatbelt sign is on, passengers can not get out of their seats. If the seatbelt sign is turned off, passengers are permitted to stand up and go to the bathroom, but getting up and walking around is never encouraged. The more people are on an airplane, the more instinctual it becomes. What if rules were established and known for how people should operate in the cafe? Or maybe it is a matter of educating all parties of how the space should operate for highest efficiency?

Example of communication within the space of an airplane, from service providers (airplane workers) to service recipients (passengers).

I thought it would be interesting to look at how airplane safety cards lay out and communicate important information to passengers. I focused on the function of color consistency, as well as how to effectively teach people to move around a three dimensional space over a two dimensional medium.

Safety cards from SAS and United Airlines

While it seemed like an interesting concept to create a safety card in the context of the Friends of Ours cafe, to provoke conversation and awareness of all stakeholder motivations while in the cafe, it was ruled out after regarding the realistic/questionable amount of impact that safety cards have on typical airplane experiences…the purpose is to have everyone who interacts with the cafe space understand each other’s desire lines and how they conflict, and less about making

I decided to make a visualization of the interactions within the Friends of Ours cafe space, with the goals of:
1. Informing the main stakeholder groups interacting with the cafe (hostess/employees, customers) about what goes on in the cafe, outside of their personal interactions.
2. Informing the primary stakeholder group (employees) about what could be implemented to improve their service provided to guests.

I used my model from SketchUp as the basis of my animation, and created various assets in Illustrator to use to tell the story of the cafe space. I decided to abstract the cafe’s representation to the most important parts, and kept a higher fidelity representation of the till, and various coffee makers that I believed could be used to demonstrate and intervention. In hindsight, I probably should have made them into separate Illustrator assets as well, as keeping them in the image of the cafe space made it very difficult to animate and manipulate.

Another key challenge was to make the invisible visible, a.k.a. the movements and the collisions between the stakeholders and the space of the cafe. I decided to approach this by representing walking patterns in lines of lower opacity, showcasing frequency of interaction and movement.


As much of this project centered around the behavior of people, I found myself becoming more and more observant and sensitive of how nuanced even the simplest of everyday human interactions could be. It’s also put into perspective of the importance of a holistic and empathetic view towards designing for human interaction—from asking the right questions to simply knowing how to watch what people are inclined to do. 

The task of observing someone for twelve hours was certainly daunting, but humbling to say the least. Everyone’s perception and value of time is reflective of their values, and to be able to witness how other spend a portion of their time in comparison to how I spend mine was important in my education to be someone of agency for other people. If anything, I hope I was able to do justice explain for all the people who I observed in the process of learning through this project.

 Special thanks to my subject, Alice! As well as Joel, Biggles, Nicholas, and IDA for a very fulfilling term.