Pave the cowpath

At my alma mater, Ball State University, there is a dirt walkway affectionately known as the cowpath. It is a makeshift shortcut from one of the dorms (er, residence halls) to classrooms on the other end of campus. It emerged out of need and student's tendency to take the shortest line between two points. The cowpath has existed for decades, and unless something has changed in the last five years, it remains a dirt trodden path.

What does any of this have to do with producing and managing software? Put simply, when we observe people wearing a path that we didn't anticipate, like when they use our software in interesting or peculiar ways, we have a few options:

  1. Slap the user's wrist and tell him not to mickey with the software
  2. Analyze if the software's user interface created some confusion
  3. Observe the user closely to understand his motivation

If you do #2 and #3 you will most likely choose to pave the cowpath instead of discouraging the user from doing what he wants to do. While I wouldn't advise retrofitting a spreadsheet into a flight simulator, developers and project managers should keep an open mind about creative ways that people repurpose software. A practical example is the Friendster software product. From presentation notes given by Danah Boyd to the Supernova Conference:

What was successful about Friendster had nothing to do with its original purpose or design [dating]. Instead, users saw it as a flexible artifact that they could repurpose to reflect their social practices. As i learned how people embedded Friendster into their daily lives, i was fascinated by how it manifested itself as so many different tools to so many different people. Some saw it as an information gathering tool, allowing them to learn about friends and strangers. Others saw it as a performance tool and a venting site. It was also used as a gaming device, a distribution channel for the drug dealer, an anti-depressant for the voyeur, a popularity contest. Many also saw it as a cultural artifact necessary for all water cooler discussions.

At first Friendster resisted the use cases they didn't ordain, but gradually they saw value in what their user base wanted from the service. They were fortunate to have a flexible system, which helps. They revised their software in minor ways (pave the cowpath), but mostly they just needed to get out of the way.

The next time your users surprise you with the way they (mis) use your software, consider if the possibility that the user knows something you don't. As a consequence you may tap into new markets for your software, and at the very least, by adapting your software to the needs of the user you will make their experience more pleasant.

A path better left unpaved

Great post; I vividly remember some of the cowpaths at my alma matter and how odd it seemed to me that the university never attempted to incorporate them into official walkways.

It also made me think of one of the more humorous essays that made it into JoS's latest book, written by Rory Blyth. I can't think of a more multi-purposed application than Excel; or one more (mis)used.

Excel as a Project Management Tool

I've also found that Excel is one of the most popular Project Management tools there is. When you think about it, it makes sense. For simple Project Management, all you need to track is the task, its date, its expected duration and that's about it...

Nice subject

It reminds me of all the criss-crossed paved walkways at the U of Toronto. Someone there must have been in favor of paving the cowpaths. But of course there are always more that you could pave... The fact that Excel is used for so many things is mostly due to the fact that many people will already have it installed with MS Office (at work anyway). This is evidence of what a powerful value the availability of the application is. Even if I know a better suited app, I might be inclined to use Excel anyway because I know I won't have to go looking for it later, or on another machine.

Can you post a google maps URL?

It would be nice to see the cowpath in question on satellite image -- with the images at least 2 or 3 years old, it is sure to still be a cowpath :)


I didn't go to Ball State - I went to another respectable Indiana college - but here's the map.

Nice idea

I looked at the map Keith provided from google but I wasn't able to find the cowpath. Really, it existed. ;)

Yeah, can't quite make out paths

Here's Queen's park which I crossed all through college. You can see some of the paved paths, but not the unpaved ones I don't think.
Queen's Park Toronto