The last three days has been a adventure of the sort I never imagined; taking a random design challenge and, through curiosity, investigation and happen-stance (not mention the wonder that is Google), being able to resolve it – for the most part. Needless to say it was meandering investigation that took more time that it should have, which is why I chose to write this blog. In the hopes that I can turn it into something useful. I’m going to try to give you the short & direct version.
It all started with an impromptu tweet:
There are a lot of these photos around (in fact there is a sub-reddit dedicated to them called r/DesirePath). For some reason this one really spoke to me because there were certain things in the photo that suggested that there was more to the environment than meets the eye.
Fundamentally the premise of the photo is that the designers didn’t consider the User Experience when designing the path and/or park. I should say that it is a valid point – in fact someone responded saying that a park in Sweden didn’t pave any paths for a year to observe the Desire Paths and inform the User Cases. However the complexity of the picture suggests to me that many factors have been considered and designed for. I was certain that if I could look at a broader picture the true design constraints could be observed.
For some reason I found it really hard to shake this problem. I tweeted a challenge to any UX designers to solve the problem posed by the photo. No one took up the challenge, but I couldn’t let it go. I tried pondering the problem using the only clue given – the photo. For a UX design solution to work it would have to:
1. Be a better outcome than “Do Nothing” case.
2. Be a better outcome than “New Path” case.
(because if the solution is that obvious, why pay for a designer, the fact that they haven’t done so already suggests a much more sticky problem.)
3. Must not overly impinge on other use case of the areas.
(We can’t just kill all the grass and park benches for that sake of paved walkways.)
4. Solution can take two forms; either short term mitigation, or wholesale re-design.
(The purpose is behaviour change, not just to make thinks pretty. But, the bigger the change the better the rationale and business case needs to be.)
Then I examine the photo, and question were abound.
1. Why two parallel paths?
2. What is going on here? A truly bizarre intersection. Is that three adjoining junctions?
3. Clearly a natural feature (river?) that has been built up and needs a bridge.
4, Interesting trail-off pattern. Indicated more than one journey. Who’s going where and why?
5. Strange grass pattern. People are either very orderly when transgressing, or maybe vehicle access?
6. We can determine the wear pattern of the the transgressors but not of the path-followers. What sort of ratio are we talking about?
7. (Most importantly) Where is this? Shadow indicated far northern hemisphere. Brownstone building (North-east USA?) I must know the context of the larger environment.
Without knowing where it is, my investigation was pointless. I tried Google Image Search – nothing. I tried searching on key landmarks (brownstone, park river, red park sign) – nothing. Then, on a whim I searched “design vs user experience” and found the original poster.
It was a miracle. Not only the original post but the location in the tweet. Nydalen is an urban renewal area in Oslo Norway. Re-developed in 2003 with a new train station, a new campus of the Business School, new Radisson hotel and Shopping Centre and revitalisation of the riverbank areas,
Now things got interesting. Now only could I thoroughly research the area and the history of the development, utilise the full power of Google Maps (screen grab below), and someone had even taken a photo sphere of the very location of the Desire Path.
Be sure to take some time to look around. I have to admit I got a tad excited that this point and was investigating everything to do with the Nydalen renewal – which is a very good example of urban design in it’s own right. But it’s not perfect – there are some marvellous examples of Desire Paths all over where the pedestrians have sought to tread their own path. I have to ask myself, “is this a result of a snow affected environment, where the ground is turned an uniform white for months?”
As you look at the photo sphere, note the two “T in a circle” symbols. This is the rear entrance of the new Nydalen train station. The main entrance being 100m away, with all sorts of stylish design features – including a light and music show which accompanies the escalator ride, called “tunnel of light”. It is clear that this rear entrance was never designed to have that sort of focus. It appears that the designers hoped commuters would ascend the extra level to the shopping centre concourse to the descend the stairs, rather than take the more immediate doorway. This illustrated well in this cut-away of the station design.
User Experience is all about decisions. In this instance the commuter must decide to either;
1. Walk the 100m platform. Ascend the “tunnel of light”, To walk 100m back.
2. Climb four flights of stairs to go outside and descend another two.
3. Climb two flights, take the first door and cut through the park.
The problem is not the path, it’s the door. What other options can be made available to improve the access from door to the bridge? An interesting experience would be to make the door not functional and see what alternate pathways people take. Was this intended as an emergency exit door, and now appropriated by commuter for daily use?
However, it doesn’t end there. It turns out that the Shopping Centre, Torgbygget is undergoing a major re-development in 2015 as part of a radical expansion of the train station capacity. Yes… They’re fixing the problem. By how much, you ask?
Here is the before.(Note the stairs and door in the right hand shot)
Here is the after. (Note the new train station entrance and riverside piazza at the rear of the RH shot.)
Fundamentally they’ve opted for the “total concrete” solution. Interesting for a redevelopment that puts it green credential front and centre. So if we look at the principles I devised:
1. It beats “Do Nothing”; either it’s part of the commercial plan, or has a viable business case.
2. It beat “New Path” because the entire entrance has been re-purposed and prioritised.
3. The use case has changed radically. It no longer the hidden back door to the river.
4. This is definitely wholesale re-design. As either part of the commercial plan, a viable business case, it would have been looking at a range of factors. It’s nice that the beaten path was one.
Is there a point to all this? I honestly don’t know – and I’ld love it if you could tell me.
Maybe I can at least frame this little story. “Design” seems to be consuming everything at the moment. Any areas of human behaviour is getting Design attached to is, or or worse, adding an X to become an eXperience Design acronym. As someone who studies Social Science and Business Culture, and has long been fascinated by the social behaviour of people (you should see the argument I had with psych majors) I feel something is missing.
Recently I’ve come across the concept of Design Anthropology. This simultaneously excites me and terrifies me – along with a number of these Design driven amalgams. Some say that these Social Science fields are being revolutionised. I don’t know about that. It seem that, under the guise of “Design”, these field are becoming trendified. Not solving sticky problem, but jumping to the minimum viable solution, without understanding the context. Our lightening fast communication methods makes it more important to design-from-the-hip than to explore the problem.
This story may end here. If it has been of interest or of use, please let me know.