ThinkPad Desire Lines

The path of least resistance

I recently listened to the user-advocate Don Norman give a talk about complexity and how it relates to design. If you're not aware, Don wrote an interesting book on this topic last year called  Living with Complexity. Don suggests that complexity is good and that simplicity is often misleading. Life is complex, rich, and rewarding—but only if it is understandable, sensible, and meaningful. Being a designer at Lenovo, I struggle on a daily basis trying to make complexity more understandable, and hopefully, enjoyable. It's always good to hear from others who share this vision. In the talk, Norman also talked a lot about what he calls "desire lines". These are lines, or paths, that suggest what people really want to do, rather than what designers want them to do. The best real world example of this phenomena is probably the design of sidewalks. Landscape architects are forever making  sidewalks with aesthetic rigidity that mirrors the strict geometry of the adjacent building. People, however, are keen to take the path of least resistance that is usually in conflict with the aesthetic goal or vision created by the designers. What emerges are paths, or informal solutions, to the problem. Sometimes the offended architects will plant prickly thorn bushes in an attempt to thwart the design violators from messing with their precious work. This doesn't really address the issue, it just makes people mad.

My T410s TrackPoint button wear suggests that I am in need of a serious vacation

Listening to Don discuss this topic made me stop and think. Every ThinkPad actually develops a form of  "desire lines" . Based on daily use, a ThinkPad, and for that matter any computer, will over time show wear patterns on the keytops and the TrackPoint buttons. It's easy to see what keys are used the most frequently, and where you strike the space bar based on the shiny spots that develop. Oddly enough, my TrackPoint buttons have more than just a shiny spot. Mine have developed actual physical depressions based on where my fingers and nails touch.  I must do a lot of clicking. The wear pattern suggests that I press the left click button about as far to the right as possible. Am I the only one who does this? As design and human factors experts, we already know a great deal about frequency of use, where people strike keys, and related buttons, but having this kind of raw data is really interesting. If we could collect enough worn ThinkPad samples or images we could possibly use the data to tune the button shape ever further. It would be interesting to compare notes on  TrackPoint button wear patterns and see if we have similar desires. Is that too much information?

David Hill