Desire paths and customer-centric product development

By Will Stokes

“Desire paths’ — a concept from urban planning and landscape architecture — have a lot to teach those of us in product management. Desire paths are commonly seen in parks and public spaces. Instead of walking along the geometrically perfect paths designed by landscape architects, people instead tend to take the fastest (or most scenic) route from A to B. Over time, their many footsteps form new paths in the grass.

Such desire paths exist because, in many cases, planners haven’t sufficiently researched where folks want to go and how they’ll want to get there — perhaps because they prioritize frameworks over people, or aesthetic geometry over working with the land and context.

They exist in the world of digital products as well, and smart companies don’t erect “keep off the grass” signs to prevent them. Instead, they should treat non-standard or unintended uses of a product as valuable user feedback.

Paving over your desire paths

The history of internet products is full of examples of desire paths being paved over and incorporated officially into the core offering of the product in which they originated. For example, two major elements of Twitter’s core product, the @-mention and the hashtag, were organically invented by their users before they were adopted by the company. Fourteen years later, these two elements are now standard means of organizing information on digital platforms from Slack to Facebook, and even TikTok.

It’s not always possible for users to invent a new feature on their own, and companies need to get creative in discovering the user needs behind a particular desire path before “paving it over” and creating an official feature. In the case of Instagram, for years there was a steady decline in the number of posts shared to the main feed — increased pressure for high like counts, the retirement of the reverse chronological feed, and the popularity of Stories likely contributed to this trend. Users, especially younger digital natives, began creating secondary private accounts for their close friends, where they could share posts with smaller groups in a low-pressure environment.

Instagram could have put up a “keep off the grass” sign by enforcing a one-person, one-account policy like their parent company, Facebook. Instead, they focused on the user needs behind these desire paths and created two transformative products — the Close Friends feature for Stories, which allows users to share with a smaller group of friends, and the ongoing experiment to hide like counts in some countries in an attempt to depressurize sharing to the main feed.

How to find desire paths in your product, and what to do about them

Following desire paths led my team at ResearchGate, the social network for scientists and researchers, into a new business area which we’d never planned on exploring. Throughout this process, we identified four steps that were key to unlocking the power of desire paths. ResearchGate is both a B2B and a B2C organization: we serve the needs of our users, meaning the scientific researchers who use our platform, as well as our customers, who are primarily scientific institutions that use our Scientific Talent and Marketing Solutions products to interact with researchers on our platform. Product management is about solving problems for people, regardless of whether they are your users or your customers. The desire paths framework is flexible enough to help a variety of product organizations identify hidden needs among the people they serve and build solutions to meet those needs.

Step 1: Pay attention to trends and off-label usage

Even before the coronavirus pandemic began, our customers began promoting an increasing number of scientific webinars on ResearchGate. They had found a workaround to do this by using our content marketing format, called Institution Posts, to promote webinars and send traffic to their own pages to enable registration. Our product had been designed for lead generation based on content marketing PDFs, but it didn’t natively support webinars. Despite this, webinar content became even more important to our customers during the pandemic, and they found a way to promote this content on ResearchGate. Our customers were still walking on the main paths of our product, but new desire paths had begun to appear.

Step 2: Question your old assumptions

At first, we did not take this trend seriously. There was historic anecdotal evidence from past campaigns which suggested to us that webinar content didn’t perform very well on our platform, which led us to believe that our researchers just weren’t interested in this format. But the evidence towards more event promotion on ResearchGate began mounting, so much so that we needed to start asking questions. We ran some analyses on campaign performance and saw that our old assumptions were flat-out wrong. At this point, the idea of building some sort of events product became more serious.

Step 3: Pause before you build

The key to working with desire paths? Don’t just build the first obvious thing. Getting into “solution mode” too quickly, even when your users or customers are asking for a very specific solution, can often lead to missteps. Product teams must ensure that they ask the right questions of their users and customers to discover where these needs overlap. Failure to take time to balance these interests can lead to solutions that are popular with customers but don’t gain the traction needed to be successful long-term with your user base, or vice versa.

At this point, we had a general idea of what our customers wanted to do but little idea of how our users would react. We took a step back to schedule interviews with our researcher member base, while at the same time sketching out a potential business model for an events product idea. We talked to several users from various disciplines and geographies and found that not only was researcher interest in webinar content higher than we thought, there was a critical gap in the online scientific events ecosystem that we weren’t previously aware of. Researchers reported that with so much content online, they often had a hard time discovering events that were relevant to their area of research. Based on this insight, we turned our attention to building an events product that could naturally fit into the core ResearchGate product which could help more people discover relevant events organically. It took time, and a lot of user research, for us to arrive at this idea. If we’d just built the first thing that came to our minds, we likely would have a weaker product on our hands.

Step 4: Invest decisively, keeping an eye on your competitive advantage

ResearchGate is joining a competitive landscape of online scientific events companies, many of whom our customers are already working with. To be successful in this space, we knew we had to offer a competitive advantage that would convince our customers to promote their events on ResearchGate instead of the sites they were already using. With 19+ million members and 135 million publication pages on ResearchGate, we have the unique ability to understand researchers’ interests and recommend relevant content to them. We invested in a native Events product that’s plugged into this vast network of scientific knowledge, allowing us to connect ResearchGate members with the best event recommendations. Events on ResearchGate is now a deeply social product, and has touchpoints all across our platform.

As the world continues to be impacted by the coronavirus pandemic, Events on ResearchGate has become a core part of our strategy to connect researchers with institutions that create scientific webinars and online events. We’re energized by all the innovative ways our customers are reaching out to scientists on ResearchGate, and we’re committed to learning from both institutions and researchers as we continue to develop the product. We hope the “desire paths” framework can be helpful for other product organizations seeking to better understand the needs of their users and customers and how to go about finding solutions for them.