Carving a Path for Users and Mail Carriers

I was out shovelling snow yesterday with Cole and got to thinking about how my stock-in-trade professional activity, information architecture, is based on natural patterning.

I’ve always observed that our mail carrier likes to cut across the driveway about mid-way, where the fence between our property and out neighbours’ ends. She doesn’t walk down to the sidewalk, along the sidewalk, and up the driveway. Like any person, she’s identified the path of least resistance in her task and takes it.

When I shovel, I tend to clear this path for her, even though it’s not part of the “official” path system we’ve built into the landscape. In fact, she’s cutting across lawns. Regardless, I feel that she provides an essential service to us and it’s in my best interests to make it as easy as possible to access my mailbox, never mind the fact it’s also just nice.

I noticed that my neighbours don’t clear this path for our mail carrier (well, one neighbour doesn’t even shovel, actually). They expect the mail carrier to follow the designed pathway system, despite the fact that she persist in manually carving her own path through the snow banks they build up on the edge of their driveway.

As an information architect, I seek these habitual paths that users self-create when navigating information spaces. Just like I shovel a path for our mail carrier to adapt our property to her needs, I seek to identify and utilize users’ common habits. These can sometimes be difficult to identify without testing, but intuition can be beneficial as long as a user of a particular space can be defined and their common needs identified.

That said, had we laid an expensive flower garden along one edge of our driveway, I may not be so accommodating of the mail carrier’s shortcut. In fact, I’d likely work harder to force her to travel down to the sidewalk and back up the driveway to protect our investment.

Similarly, with a web site, were there regulations or requirements that defined particular usage patterns, then that would be built into an information architecture model.

In general, however, an information space needs to be as accommodating and natural-feeling to users as possible.