In the 90’s someone gave my father Roger von Oech’s Creative Whack Pack which he kept at his office for several years. Occasionally I would visit my father at work and I would almost always find the Creative Whack Pack and read the fascinating advice. Some stories left such an impression on me that I remember them to this day. Card 31 reads:
An architect built a cluster of office buildings around a central green. When construction was completed, the landscape crew asked him where he wanted the sidewalks. “Just plant the grass solidly between the buildings,” was his reply. By late summer the new lawn was laced with paths of trodden grass between the buildings. These paths turned in easy curves and were sized according to traffic flow. In the fall, the architect simply paved the paths. Not only did the paths have a design beauty, they responded directly to user needs.
Whenever I visit a college campus or another building complex with high foot traffic, I almost always notice that the sidewalk was placed in traditional straight lines with turns at right angles. However, there is usually a path of trodden grass that leads directly to my destination. This alternate path rarely follows the convention of the sidewalks. “If only this campus had that architect from the Creative Whack Pack,” I will think to myself.
This example was given before the term UX was coined. In fact, in 1992 the internet wasn’t even a worldwide phenomenon yet. But the message is essentially the heart of usability design. The architect in this narrative didn’t make any assumptions about sidewalk placement. Nor did he rush a solution. He waited and he observed the end users. After some time of observation, it became clear what the user needed.
It may not always be as clear as trodden grass, but as user experience designers or usability designers, need to make sure we observe long enough to understand the paths our end users need.