What can shortcuts tell us about human behavior

Why understanding this behavior is important and what designers and companies can learn from it.

Every day we perform a myriad of thoughtless acts without even noticing. Human behavior is complex and unpredictable. Because of this the intended usage of a product or a service sometimes does not match its real use. Think about this. How often do you safely eject a thumb drive before unplugging it? If you’re a Mac user do you navigate to Edit — Copy and then Edit — Paste in the menu? Or do you use Command + C and Command + V shortcuts on your keyboard?

These are all examples of a behavior called a shortcut or a desire path. Desire path is the quickest and most efficient path to get to the desired outcome or destination with the least amount of friction.

IKEA Showrooms

Have you ever tried cutting through the IKEA Showroom when in a rush? Or when you had to quickly get to a certain department? Chances are it wasn’t that easy. Maybe you even had to ask sales associates for navigation help. IKEA stores are famous for their maze-like layout. They are designed with the goal to increase the time customers spend in the stores, which can lead to impulse purchases.

But IKEA recognized that not all the customers would want to follow the obligatory path. There are many shortcut routes to get around the store quickly, but they are not easy to notice. You have to make an effort to find them.

Image credit: Business Insider

According to one IKEA employee, these shortcut routes are constantly changing. The reason for that is because customers would get familiar with the shortcuts and know how to zip through the store. The company would change the shortcuts once in a while to have people go around the long way again.

IKEA’s example shows that you can’t control how people will interact with your product or service. Desire paths are persistent so as a human behavior. If you erase one path, another will appear on the same spot or somewhere else. In this case, forcing the company to keep changing its floor layout.

Why people use shortcuts

While every person might have a unique reason for this behavior, there are some common patterns.

As Tom Hulme put in his TED talk:

People are resourceful. They’ll always find the low-friction route to save money, save time.

People are smart and know how to go around the system. We’re very creative at coming up with hacks for tedious and inefficient processes. As the pace of life has increased we grew more impatient. Time has become precious. Many times I caught myself taking the stairs in the subway instead of the escalator to save time. Even though the actual saving in time is insignificant, it’s the feeling of saving time that makes us feel good. Because we hate the feeling of wasting our time.

How to discover shortcuts

The best way to spot shortcuts is to go out into the world and observe people in their natural environments.

People are so ingenious at adapting to inconvenient situations that they are often not even aware that they are doing so. Their actual behaviors, however, can provide us with invaluable clues about their range of unmet needs. — Tim Brown “Change by Design”

By observing people in their natural context you’ll be able to see their actual behavior and natural workarounds. Something that you may not be able to uncover during a user interview.

What can we learn from shortcuts

Shortcuts are a great resource of information and can help us understand how we can improve products or services. They can be indicators of complexity and help uncover opportunities for simplification. People will naturally find a way to cut lengthy and inefficient processes by coming up with faster and more efficient ones.

People won’t always use your product or service in a way you want them to. They will use it in a way that is the most efficient and convenient for them. Shortcuts can reveal our assumptions about people and their needs. If people don’t find the intended usage to be helpful or efficient, they will find an alternative route. Instead of trying to change people’s habits, we should ask ourselves what can we learn from their habits.

Next time you find out about an unexpected route that people take while using your product or a service, don’t resist it or disregard it. Keep digging deeper. The results might surprise you.