Pave the cow’s path

Do you know the saying “Don’t pave the cow’s path”?

It is often used in the IT and business sector as a warning to not automate a business process as is, without thinking about whether or not that process is effective or efficient.

The expression comes from a story about the streets of Boston. When the city of Boston was new and unpaved the city fathers merely paved the paths that was already there, created and worn by cattle going to and from pasture, instead of laying down a grid pattern of streets with straight angles.

The implication is that this has resulted in a chaotic inefficient street plan that lacks logic, because the streets of down-town Boston are meandering instead of straight. The admonition not to pave the cow’s path is supposed to remind us not to enshrine a makeshift solution.

We shouldn’t just do things in a certain way because that’s the way they’ve always been done. And we should definitely not formalise a process based on the same premises.

I like this story for several reasons. One of them is how it shines a light on the assumption that the better street plan is the straight and square grid. And that the “meandering” ones are less logical and less efficient.

Personally, I love cities which are built during time periods when the square block wasn’t a thing. They are so much more full of life, character and identity.

But apart from my personal preferences, there’s another thing to consider. The irony is that cattle are actually a pretty good at finding the path of least resistance, which is often the best route for a road.

A strategy that might be less suitable for immaterial things like business processes (to formalise and fortify what people already do), turns out to be quite useful for creating things in meat-space.

Our notion of straight and square roads at all costs might not be very efficient at all if we consider the elevation of the landscape, with hills and rivers and so on. And it’s known that narrow and straight roads can contribute to wind problems – especially in conjunction with very tall buildings that face the wind.

But this is not only applicable to designing physical spaces. It applies to virtual design too. Sometimes what we think is clear and logical (straight and square) is not at all the simplest nor most efficient solution.

In UX these paths of least resistance is called desire paths. When it comes to user experience, “paving the cow’s path” is actually used not as a warning but as an example of what to do – instead of designing a solution that might look pretty but lack usability.

This classic image illustrates the point precisely:

So the same saying is used in different fields, with the completely opposite connotation. One is for something we want to avoid, and the other is for something we want to do.

When we try to think of a “great” solution, we often fail to make it simple. The more we think, the more complicated it becomes. And users, just like the animals, have an instinct of taking the simplest and most efficient route.

I think that’s why the business sector takes the saying of paving the cow’s path as a negative. They believe that their existing process is a result of people’s instincts, so if they’re overly complicated it’s an indication that those instincts should be ignored.

But the more likely scenario is that a process that is gnarly probably is so because it has grown and evolved over time. With slight additions and tweaks here and there, people have learnt it until it becomes a habit and no they longer question it.

Or somebody created a process according to what that person found logical, which then has been trained into memory of everyone else until it became habitual and no longer questioned.

The same applies to yourself, if you take the process of somebody else off the internet or from a book and try to integrate it into your own life as a habit without questioning, afterthought or evaluation.

Habits do not equal instincts.

In that sense, both IT process people and UX designers are in fact right.

You should not allow old habits to set in stone without examining them to figure out if they really are the best way to achieve what you want.

But if you find yourself doing a “shortcut” over and over again because it’s easier, think about whether you shouldn’t actually make that shortcut part of your standard process.

Keep an eye out for the possible cow’s path’s in your own life, and pave them if you can.

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