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Pave the Cowpaths

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A motto often heard from supporters of microformats is “Pave the cowpaths,” which means, essentially, look where the paths are already being formed by behavior and then formalize them, rather than creating some sort of idealized path structure that ignores history and tradition and human nature and geometry and ergonomics and common sense. This principle is sometimes applied on campuses and sometimes a rear-guard “keep off the grass” action is fought instead to no avail.

In the design of social interfaces, this rubric has two applications: the first is simply to do your ethnographic homework: study some of your potential customers. How do they do what they do today? Yes, of course the thing you want them to do will be better but is it really entirely different? Can you offer people a way to continue doing most of the things they’re comfortable doing today as you introduce new possibilities into their lives, or are you really going to insist on them changing everything at once?

The second application of Pave the Cowpaths comes later in the lifecycle of your site, when you’ve got a user base and they start doing things you never anticipated. Often the impulse is to stamp out these rogue behaviors and enforce draconian rules requiring only the behaviors you had planned for. This really only make sense if the behaviors you are trying to stamp out are truly destructive or evil. There are many anecdotes about thriving social sites that killed themselves off by legislating against fun and forcing their users into exile to find the activities they had been improvising “incorrectly” in the site they had to leave.

A better plan is to support the behaviors your users are engaged in. Let your users tell you what the best and highest use of your interface may turn out to be. Don’t be so arrogant as to assume you know everything about how the social dynamics you’ve unleashed need to evolve.

aka People Will Determine What Your Interface is For