Two Roads Diverged in a Shallow Pic

For the past year or so this image has been circulating widely on the interwebs, as an alleged illustration of the difference between design and user experience.

The first couple times that I saw it, I thought it was brilliant. It shows clear evidence of poor design, one that had obviously ignored the very natural tendency of human beings to take the shortest possible route between point A and point B. An excellent observation indeed.

By the 5th time it had landed in my inbox under the heading “I immediately thought of you haha”, flattering as it is (or is it?), I’ve started to wonder. Architects are not usually known for being especially dim or naive (well, unless you count the guys who designed those, but I doubt that architecture schools are very prominent in their resumes). Is it possible that there’s a reason for this apparent design blunder? Could there be more than meets the eye?

As a UX designer who likes to believe in the professionalism of his colleagues, or at any rate as one who knows all too well just how far the final product often ends up from the design, whenever I come across a design flaw that just seems too bad to be true, I usually try to get to the bottom of it, looking for any extenuating circumstances to the design offense. Sometimes it’s a technical difficulty. Sometimes it’s a UX rule of thumb that was followed blindly into clashing with another UX best practice. As often as not, the culprit is a convention that’s been set elsewhere by the designer herself, which is now giving her trouble in an unforeseen setting. Wherever the problem may lay, it’s always one that we can’t discover without finding out more about the context of the issue at hand.

So, extending architects the same courtesy as I do designers, I’ve decided to learn more. I needed to find the place where the picture was taken and explore it.

The Context

Frankly I didn’t really believe I’d be able to pull it off, so imagine my amazement when after about 15 minutes of beginner-level google-fu later, I had the little Google Street View guy standing mere meters away from the spot I was seeking. The place is Nydalen, Oslo, Norway. We can see our two viral paths diverging from a bird’s-eye view,

or we can go ahead and walk them, if we dare, with Street View.

If you doubt that this is really it, feel free to take a look around for yourself. You’ll find all the features of the original image in their proper places — the red brick house with the white shades, the stream, the benches, the little bridge, and even the red rounded sign is still there. They do seem to have changed the tops of the lampposts though (but not the posts themselves).

I think that we can agree that it’s the same location. Now let’s go exploring!

We can see that the little paved walkway leads to a pretty modest-looking door. This is the back entrance to a large complex housing the Torgbygget shopping mall, the Radisson BLU hotel and apparently a subway station. What makes me think that this is the back door? Well, the other two entrances are located on busy urban streets and not on a picturesque little stream bank, and they look like this

and this (this one is directly opposite the original door, I think we can see it — and even the offending paths — at the back end of the lobby).

And if we zoom out a bit, we can see that while both the little paved walkway and the trodden path come to the end of their short lives right at the door, the main pavement goes ever on and on, for about 50 meters or so, until it reaches the square pictured at the first of the two images above. The square features the main entrances both to the shopping mall and the subway station.

In case you’re wondering why I’m boring you with a detailed guided tour of a nondescript shopping mall on a Norwegian street where I’ve never even been, the reason is this: the viral image creates the illusion that there’s the short walkway that goes straight and then takes a sharp left turn, which would be a very odd architectural decision indeed. This illusion is false. In reality, there’s a main walkway going along the stream bank and leading to a central and busy location, and it has a little tiny arm, about 15 meters long, leading to the back door of a mall. This is our context, we need to know what we’re working with.

The Alternatives

Now that we know a bit more about the setting, let’s see what other solutions could’ve been used. I don’t think that we need to bother with any special out-of-the-box thinking here, seeing as this is just a back door to a mall, hardly a prominent architectural feature (although with the amount of publicity the image gets, it might be turning into the Mecca of UX designers, so I hope you’re awed enough to virtually be there).

Visitors who leave the building might need to go left or right. It’s actually quite unlikely for them to want to continue straight, unless they mean to take a swim in the stream. So according to the suggestion implicit in the image, the proper design would be something like this

Now I’m no architect, but at least in UX design we try to fight the tendency to cater to the user’s every possible whim by providing more controls, options and features, because that leads to ugly, bloated and unusable designs. Instead, we try to not be mortally afraid of the users having to perform an extra click here and there, if it means that we’ve identified an efficient main flow that brings the most value to the most users while keeping things clean and simple for everyone. The term “minimalist design” has become almost synonymous with “good design”, maybe even too much so, but in this case I say “why pave two walkways when you can do with one?”.

Since I said “alternatives” in the plural I now feel compelled to provide at least one more. And it does exist. It’s actually the most minimalist of them all, and covers all possible scenarios. Why decide between one walkway in the middle and two walkways to the sides, when you can just cover the whole thing in concrete? Voila, problem solved!

The Data

Imagine that you’re meeting with a new client to kick off a redesign project for her online shop where she sells her unique hand-made jewelry for cats. You might ask what makes her think that the site needs to be redesigned. To which she might reply that every day, dozens of people abandon the site without looking at a single product. At which point you would hopefully ask, well, how many people do look at the products, what’s the drop-off rate behind the drop-off numbers. And then she goes “Oh, I don’t know, I don’t measure the rate, I only know how many people left the site, but I don’t care how many stayed”.

Sounds bizarre, doesn’t it?

Well, as inconspicuous as it may be, that’s exactly what’s going on in the Nydalen photo.

The grass is the landscaper’s Google Analytics. It records the people who’ve strayed off the paved path to make a shortcut. That’s the trodden path that we see. But the paved walkway does not reflect the traffic that it bears. For all we know, there may be thousands of people walking it daily. And maybe it’s even so busy that some delinquents are forced to cut corners just to get around the mass of stay-off-the-grass-sign-respecting individuals who patiently make their way on the walkway. That is probably not the case. But we have no way of knowing.

Had there been no walkway at all, we’d have been able to compare the number of people using each route, but at present it’s just making assumptions based on an unknown proportion of the data, backed by a misleading image (since there happens to be a person walking the trodden path,while the walkway is empty).

The image claims to show a gap between the design and the actual behavior. In reality, it shows nothing at all.