Desire Lines and Systems Design

Posted by matthew on Mar 9, 2006 in educause, research |

A very helpful comment from Jenny Reiswig on yesterday’s blog entry lead to the discovery of the term ‘desire lines’ — an evocative concept that has already been used as an analogy in the design of technical systems.

Larry Wall, creator of UNIX Perl language:

People will accept a new thing much better if it already resembles something they’re familiar with or the way theyare already thinking about things. A musician would say “A musical piece lays under the fingers — it looks hard but it is easy to play.” Another way of thinking of it is (by analogy:) At the University of California at Irvine, when they first built its campus, they just planted grass. Then they waited a year and looked at where people had made paths in the grass and built the sidewalks there. I did the same thing with Perl. I looked at the paths people liked to traverse in UNIX, and distilled them down to a language that still in many ways contains the essence of UNIX. The real driving force behind porting Perl to Windows and Macs is primarily disenfranchised UNIX programmers who want to have a little bit of the old country, and with Perl they get that. On a Windows machine, we make sure there are Windows-specific interfaces, but the notion of being able to hook everything up to everything else in a simple manner is really shoving a wad of UNIX glue into the middle of the works. (It’s about) taking a system where “you can’t get there from here” and letting you get there from here.

Larry Wall Articles and Interviews