The “Convenience Bias” Which Shapes Everything We Do

Feb 6 · 7 min read
Image courtesy of Virginia Tech

If you’ve ever wanted to learn about user experience, you need to look no further than the tens of images of snow covered parks in December. As soon as people start walking through the park, the white spaces begin to be criss-crossed by “informal” pathways which go in different directions and of which, two or three become dominant and deep enough to start looking like proper “official” walkways . These organically-trodden ways are known as “desire paths” and, in areas of extreme city planning, you will see them beaten down into the greenery between sidewalks with untold stubbornness.

“Desire paths” have other names too — cow path, elephant path, trample path, to suggest maybe that this type of endeavour is the doing of animals, beings with no regard to rules. But the name “desire path” speaks clearly of the implied tension. You hear it and you understand that people have chosen to go that way because that’s what they wanted to do, as opposed to what they were being told to do (in the case of pathways, by city and park planners). But there is also misinterpretation inherent in the name, because “desire” suggests that this may be personal, subjective, maybe even arbitrary when, in fact, desire paths exist solely because so many people seemed to have found the same way more …desirable.

In that small pause before you read the word “desirable” in the previous sentence you will also glean the true meaning of desire paths. They are called desire paths because people decided to go with their own desires but these desires are not arbitrary or else the path would not be there but we would have hundreds of smaller, quickly vanishing, tracks. People decided to go that way, that same, repeated way, because it was easier. These are not desire paths but convenience paths.

In a recent experiment, the University of Wisconsin mapped their entire campus using the desire path approach (Uni of Illinois went even further and paved all of theirs). Over the sprawling campus, planners allowed people to take their own path to reach the various buildings and then measured the depth of the most trodden ones to decide which to “make official”. Not infrequently, these paths were the most direct, fastest and most obvious ones. People with intent had directionality and, since most people on campus wanted to get to a building for class, the most obvious paths were those deepest trodden. “Desire” in this particular experiment was driven by intent and needs. And the “desire” told of the same obvious conclusion: when people need to accomplish something, they will prefer, indeed seek, the most convenient way.

This, by the way, is what drives strong user experience design, which is why I mentioned it in the opening of the article. While quite often, internet experience is built by people with specific intentions in mind (akin to the city planners), users will find ways to signal their desired pathways and direction in navigation. If you think of “breadcrumb” navigation on websites, quite often this was a way for website designers to provide alternate ways for people to find their way in complicated site architecture. Twitter’s use of hashtags is another example of providing a “desire path” for users who want to quickly find all the conversations on a topic. By contrast, Facebook has an architecture which attempts to erase desire paths so that the user “walks the walks” that Facebook wants her to, and consumes more content within the platform.

But I digress.

The concept of “desire paths” is indicative of something way bigger, something which is obvious not in just the paths we take to get to our favourite coffee shop, but pretty much in everything we do. Whenever an action has directional intent, meaning “I need to accomplish something”, the in-built instinct is to find the most convenient way to do it. I like to think of this as “the convenience bias” although there are more academic / scientific ways in which this has been spoken of (if you’re keen, look into the work done by Boris Cheval at Uni of Geneva). You can see this in action in pretty much any intent-driven action and, indeed, some hefty parts of behavioural science deal with the brain’s innate desire to cut through complication and just get stuff done quickly. It’s why breaking down long, boring tasks into smaller chunks makes them seem more achievable and it’s why we have to “reward” ourselves to accomplish things that are hard or complex. Sadly, this very bias may also be why we easily give in to algorithms programmed to feed us content through auto-play recommendations.

To understand the power of the “convenience bias”, I’ll take you back to the “desire paths” discussion. In quite a lot of situations, desire paths are detrimental to the space they appear in. In parks and forests, walking paths are usually designed to ensure that the “habitats” of different species and the human population are optimally intertwined. Quite frequently in taking the desire[d] path we inflict some damage to a part of the ecosystem. There is a price for doing what is convenient but desire paths appear anyway.

This is not different for other intentional behaviour, but for me it’s becoming increasingly obvious in the purchase behaviours of modern, progressive consumers.

To test this, I asked the people who kindly follow me on Twitter a simple question: “Have you started buying things from Amazon that you’d normally buy elsewhere purely because of the speed of delivery?”. The context of the question is not without relevance: I can make a pretty assured assumption that people who follow me work in marketing and advertising or design, that they are younger than 50 and that they hold progressive views. Consequently, I can also pretty much be certain that they hold some form of dislike of the mammoth that is Amazon and its business practices. So my question was meant less to clarify if indeed they had bought something from Amazon but more if they had done so despite their in-built prejudice towards the retailer.

I was not disappointed. Although at the beginning, people responded with the expected “no, I’ve stopped buying from them as I object to their business practices”, more than 80% of those who proceeded to answer my question admitted that they had indeed, albeit unwillingly, bought something from Amazon and that their experience of getting stuff delivered easily and quickly overrode the moral qualms of doing business with Amazon. Interestingly, a large majority of those who answered the question with Yes, also qualified the answer by saying things like “it was an emergency”, “it was things I knew my local store would not stock”, “I needed something very specific”, “I only did it once”.

What’s striking about this small experiment is the realisation that the convenience bias is stronger than objective knowledge that you’re doing something which is not ideal. Most of the people who took the time to respond understood that admitting to the purchase also meant they were being cast in a certain light and they took the time to justify that choice. The “desire path” they had taken came with consequences, and still the bias to get things done easily was stronger.

Now, let’s magnify, if you will, that exercise to general consumer behaviour. We often get told of “black swan” events when consumers have pushed back on bad corporate behaviour and have changed their purchase behaviours to show brands that they disagree with their conduct. #deleteUber seems to have reduced Uber’s market share by 1/4 in some markets and Nike may have lost a fair share of fans when news first broke of their sweatshops in 2001. [The latter brand has since made up for that slip-up with campaign after campaign supporting various rights and causes.] But I call these “black swans” for a reason, namely that looking at brand tracking across multiple categories for the past 15 years has made one thing pretty clear: convenience trumps principles in a large majority of the population. People will do what’s easiest for them in most purchase situations, to the extent that some people will not walk 1/2 mile further to buy from a local store if there is a chain store closer to home. If delivery is speedy and returns simple, people will frequently omit to check the provenance of things they buy. In daily situations, emergencies or for specific categories, convenience will most often trump other considerations.

The statement above can be qualified in multiple ways. First, by category or industry, meaning that daily purchases and low cost purchases are more likely to be done under a convenience bias. Second, but less so than you’d expect by age, where yes, one can see that younger, more progressive buyers (and also interestingly retirees with solid retirement funds) tend to favour informed choice over convenience. And lastly, as expected there is a geographical consideration, where places with hight population density have more choice and hence more ability to make principled, non-convenience -biased choices. But this is not the norm. The norm remains the same across all buyers, in most situations, in most categories, convenience trump other considerations.

If this sounds dire and maybe generalising, I can reassure you that things are indeed not as black and white as they used to be. A new generation of buyers are more informed and have some qualms which occasionally deter them from taking the easy way out. Companies are not willing to take the risk so are meeting new demands for corporate behaviour sometimes before these demands become public. And things are indeed improving because what we are willing to “take detours” for is gaining in importance: sustainable production, local origin and artisanship, paying the right price for labor, true science in the service of people’s needs vs corporate stakeholder. Percentages are indeed shifting.

However, we should also be careful to assign overwhelming importance to these changes and understand that, fundamentally, people strive for simplicity. There is only so much energy that the human brain can assign to intentional activities and only this much of one’s life that people can examine (to paraphrase a famous podcast inviting us to “lead an examined life”). A hyper-alert customer, one that needs to make “moral” decisions every time they stretch their hand out to pick something off the shelf is unlikely. So, while we consider ways in which to build better parks and supermarkets, we will continue to contend with the reality of “convenience bias” and how much of all of our decisions fall under its reign.

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Digital Strategist. The Internet will save the world (pending verification). Views expressed here are my own/should not be construed as coming from my employer.

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