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Quit Shoving!

Thoughts on Paths


Raise your hand if you’ve ever visited a website that seems like it should be straight forward (a bank, a restaurant, an online purchase form) but leaves you boggled. We all have. Even Amazon, in all their “test always” glory, confuses the hell out of me sometimes.

There’s usually a good reason for this, though: the bank wants you to take out a credit line, not move money to savings, so they obscure that path. The restaurant wants you to call for a reservation, but forgot you might need to know when the bar closes. The online retailer wants you to purchase, but forgot you may just want to save an item for later. And no one really knows why Amazon does some of the things they do — but it seems to be working for them, right?

I recently had the pleasure of seeing Avinash Kaushik speak (and believe me, there’s as much seeing as hearing — he’s like a one-man circus when he hits the stage). And Avinash said something I really liked. He said, “I hate funnels. In fact, if you like funnels, I hate you.”

What he’s proposing turns traditional marketing (and most especially content marketing) on its head: “Don’t design to a funnel, because at the end of the day, you end up just SHOVING people down funnels!” he says. “And nobody likes to be SHOVED!” Instead, design to your user’s intent. And users have about three main intents.

Intent Clusters

I haven’t been a marketer nearly as long as I’ve been a consumer. But ever since I entered the field of marketing, this thing keeps cropping up:

A simple funnel drawing shows three tiers tapering down into a fourth linear spout. The top tier is labeled awareness in red. The next smaller tier is labeled interest in light blue. The third smallest tier is labeled desire in olive green. And the spout at the bottom is labeled action in dark brown.
Thank you, Blogspot user, for the prettiest AIDA funnel on the web.

And part of me always says, “That’s not me. I don’t shop that way. I don’t research that way. How can that be right?” Because in reality, I search the web like this:

Close up photo of a pile of yellow spaghetti noodles all twisting and winding together in a heap.
See? Writer’s get it.

Every one of those noodles represents a different website, and the path I take through it to get from one end to the other. And they overlap and intertwine and make no sense on the surface, but my brain still somehow comes to a conclusion from it all.

“Don’t SHOVE,” Avinash says. “Build to intent.” People have different purposes when they come to your website. Some people just want to SEE your content, some people want to THINK about your content, and others want to DO something with it. Let me break it down like Avinash did:

  • All people wear shoes — give them content they can SEE and relate to, but ask nothing of them. For instance:

A sepia-toned meme shows Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz talking to Toto her dog. They are in Dorothy's bedroom in Kansas. White text at the top says, This lady was all like 'Gimme yo shoes' and the text at the bottom says, And I was like, 'Witch, please'
DIYLOL. No, really. That’s the URL.

  • Some people wear shoes and are considering a new pair — give these people content they can THINK about, but ask nothing of them. For instance:

Black text is paired over a yellow-gold banner with an indistinct picture in the background. The text says, TOMS has given more than 45 million pairs of new shoes to children in need. One for One.
TOMS one for one campaign

  • Quite a few people wear shoes and have decided to buy more — give this group content they can DO something with — this is where you ask. For instance:

A screenshot of a banner from North Face's website shows a few breadcrumbs in the top left corner that read Home / Shoes / Women's. An image of a sturdy blue-gray hiking boot splashing into a gritty, gross-looking mud puddle takes up most of the screen. On the right, white text overlays the mud and says, Lighter. Stronger. New supportive, lightweight, mid-cut fastpacking boot performs on any terrain. Underneath is a red button with white text that says Shop the Boot.
The North Face bids you shop.

[Read the full post and linked amazingness here — I’ve got to keep moving.]

Cow Paths

The truth is, whether you mean for them to or not, users always find shortcuts to the content they want on your site. You may try to cram them down a very organized sales funnel all day long, but one of two things will happen: they will find a way around it or you’ll piss them off and never see them again.

These paths around are called “desire paths.” They’re the shortcuts, the cow paths, the best expression of your user’s primary intent. (See Stephen Landau’s excellent article on desire paths.) A great tool for finding desire paths is user testing. Test your site with a new user, a user who’s had several days with it, and an old user who’s very familiar with the site. They will each approach the given tasks in different manners, and the familiar users will show you their desire paths.

Jared Spool, the king of watches and UX out of Chattanooga, calls this hierarchy of user understanding “The Magic Escalator of Acquired Knowledge.” Here’s how it works (briefly):

A graphic displays the heading Magic Escalator of Acquired Knowledge. The image shows a green line moving from the bottom left to the top right of the image. It represents the escalator. A person is visible on the escalator about halfway up. The lowest end of the escalator is the point of no knowledge. The person on the escalator is marked as current knowledge, and a red arrow moves from them further up the escalator to a point labeled target knowledge. The space between the person at current knowledge and the point of target knowledge is labeled as the knowledge gap. And the highest end of the escalator is labeled all knowledge.
Thank you, Jared. This has stuck with me for 4 years.

The escalator itself represents all the knowledge a user can have about your website. On the bottom end, we have new users who are learning how your site works. And on the top end are your legacy users (the ones with well-trod desire paths). In between are those currently learning your UI and trying to accomplish tasks.

Preserving the Ant Trails

Let’s pretend you have a monthly budgeting website that is very popular — you have new users constantly signing up and learning, and old users who’ve had access for 2 years. The board comes to you and says, “We love where this is going, but we feel like the site is quickly becoming out of date — here’s a lot of money to rebuild your website.”

[Hey, we’re pretending here — I can pretend numberless sums of money if I want.]

When you set about redesigning the site, if you don’t first learn your legacy users’ desire paths and adjust the new design to make them feel like experienced users, you’ll lose them completely. And the legacy users are your source of money (Jared explains that bit here). It’s a proven system.

A great example of this is the Snowbird resort website here in Utah. Ben Cline and his team did a great job redesigning it, and he has a couple UX stories of his own to go with it, so I’ll tell my own story. When I moved to Utah two years ago, I decided to try skiing, and began asking advice of the seasoned skiers in the office. Greg, a co-worker who moved to Utah years ago for the powder alone, recommended the Snowbird website as a resource, but he cautioned me that the design was terrible. I pulled the site up and thought it was orderly, clean, well laid out, and seemed to readily offer everything a person new to Snowbird wanted to see.

Key word there: new. Greg was a legacy user. He lived in Utah for ten years and skied Snowbird for all ten of them. He used the website for two things: updates on mountain weather, including closures and conditions, and buying his annual pass. In the redesign of the website, his two major goals were moved to unfamiliar locations, shaking his trust (essentially) in an organization he had relied on for ten years for the best powder and mountain access.

But to the new kids, the site seemed to have everything it needed, and we very quickly familiarized ourselves with the layout.

Did you see how quickly that escalated for Greg, though? The website was his major association with the Snowbird brand (not the snow — they can’t control that). When they obscured his legacy user paths, he wasn’t upset at the redesign — he was upset at the brand itself.

A green plastic frame holds two plates of glass, and between the pieces of glass, a lot of sand is visible. Ants are crawling over the sand and have made tidy little tunnels through it. Because of the glass, the viewer can see through the tunnels to the zig-zag wallpaper in the background.
We never did have an ant farm.

Remember ant farms? Those were kinda weird, now that I think about it. But a website redesign can be a lot like shaking up a year old ant farm — all the ants alive today have to work hard at building new paths and creating a new “comfort zone” for themselves, but the baby ants will be learning the system as they go. So how do you help old, new, and actively learning audiences?

Intent, But Not Yours

To preserve legacy user’s paths and make existing path better for new users, you have to redesign (or design from the beginning) to intent. But not your own intent — your users’ intent.

  • Heavy Pre-Testing

Before you begin tearing apart your old website (in our instance, the budgeting app), do your research: what works? what doesn’t work? why doesn’t it work? how can you make it better?

Spend time with your users: look at GA for the what: what do users click? what don’t they click? Then open your heatmaps and user testing videos and interviews with active users — why do they or don’t they click? What emotions are motivating them? What information is missing? What do they wish your app did?

This stage can take a lot of forms: interviews, open-ended surveys asking for user input on desired features, observing current users, a quick visit to your local Starbucks, or full site audits through GA. Whatever it takes, do your research up front — your users will thank you.

  • Prototyping/Beta/A & B testing

Then find the people who are giving you money — the people who would miss your website if it just disappeared. Put your pride away for a few minutes and show them your wireframes, a working prototype of the new site, or even designer sketches. Get their gut feeling for where you’re going — you’ll know really quickly if you’re alienating your legacy users. And if they really are your legacy users, they’ll care enough to not spare your feelings and tell you what’s wrong with the rebuild.

  • Launch with Answers

Jared says there are a couple ways to ease users into a new launch: either train your users as they go (with in-app tips, pointers, first-time visitor overlays, and helpful hints) or reduce the amount of learning users have to do by simplifying the design. By training them, you give them one-time useful information that they may need to remember on their own later: you’re setting goals for them. And if the goals are too high, they may never come back to your website. By simplifying the design, you are bringing those lofty goals down to within their grasp and making your website memorable for it’s ease of use. After all

easy to use > awesome looking

  • Explain Yourself

Maybe you’re reading this too late, your redesign is live, and your legacy users aren’t happy. Offer them something valuable — a sincere letter from the president, a blog walking through “Why” on the redesign, data visualizations that explain why you needed to change their desire paths. Whatever you offer them, make sure they understand you did it for them. Because your users should be the reason you do anything.

Where Does This Path Go?

Look, the Internet as we know it in 2015 is a terrifying place: there are thousands of websites being created every day, both by experts and by people with as little web savvy as my mom. Everybody wants eyeballs on their websites. But we people that use the Internet are fickle — we react emotionally to everything, we change our minds for no apparent reason, and we hold grudges longer than is healthy. So how do you as a website builder get silly, selfish people to look at your website for longer than .273 seconds?

Quit shoving. Give your users a reason to trust you, and the ones that believe you will buy what you’re selling.


Previously published on Medium.

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