Taking the Shortcut – It’s a Human Thing

There’s a path near to where I work, which is on the route to the local train station and local supermarket. There is a tarmac path which few people use, there’s also a short-cut path which saves the walker less than a few metres which everyone uses (unless it’s the winter when the shortcut gets muddy).

This situation is repeated in communities around the world.

I recently saw this picture of a pathway designed by someone who was clearly trying to create an aesthetic:

How long do you think it will be before the aesthetic will include lines between each of the bends? 🙂

It’s human to shortcut, we are fundamentally lazy so will do anything to optimise our experiences to take the shortest possible route. Yet, we continue to build systems and services in the expectation that people will go out of their way to do what we want them to do.

I work with a group of people whose job is to optimise processes, the people who oversee these processes are regularly surprised when people do the “bare minimum” to move the process from one phase into another phase. The accusation is that “They’re just ticking boxes.” The behaviour exhibited operators of these processes is completely understandable, why would anyone go around the wiggly lines when a straight-line shortcut is available? Building systems that expect people to behave in any other way is folly.

Sometimes the shortcuts are outright dangerous and in these situations we need to be explicit about the reason for the long-route, but we should expect people, in general, to prefer the shortcut. Yet, everywhere you look there are examples of systems and processes that expect people to behave in a way that isn’t natural.

Knowing that people are lazy and will take shortcuts doesn’t have to be a problem, quite often it’s an opportunity. The opportunity for process and system designers is to make them work in a way that doesn’t require shortcuts, or to provide alternatives that are better than the current shortcuts. If you can’t get people to use safe passwords then don’t put more and more barriers in people’s way, get rid of the passwords and find another way of authenticating people. If people only fill in the three mandatory pieces of information on your form ask yourself why the other questions are there and use the opportunity to get rid of them. If people don’t use the tools you buy for them to get the job done and use free ones instead, take the opportunity to move over to the free ones.

“Yeah, I am lazy. There’s no doubt about that.”

Usain Bolt

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