A Silly Little (Very Important) Photo

I snapped this photo five years ago today. At first glance it is wholly unremarkable. However, it’s assumed unexpected – and evolving – importance to my work over the years. It will be immediately familiar to anybody who has seen me present on design thinking.

I initially stopped to take this photo because the scene is a good example of how design does not always deliver the experience that users truly want. “Users” want to cut through the grass and have literally worn a path – some call this a desire path but I prefer “cow path”. Notably, the footpath veering to the right is newer than the cow path. Designers needed only to pave the path that was already worn. When I say they went in another direction, I’m being literal.

Hence, I’ve used this photo in my teaching and presentation slides through the years as a justification for using design thinking approaches. It’s become a joke among my colleagues and I that the image is world famous.

In recent presentations and lectures, I’ve started to note that I would have moved the rubbish bin out of the way if I had known at the time how important the image would eventually become. It’s a silly comment that sometimes gets a little laugh.

I made that same comment in class this semester and a very thoughtful (and Photoshop proficient) student took it upon themselves to erase the bin and email the cleaned up image to me. I was delighted until I realised… now I couldn’t make my silly little joke. I’d come to rely on that joke for a little ice breaking levity, as this slide usually appears toward the start of any talk.

And so while the student thought they were merely gifting me a new image, what they actually gifted me was even better: yet another example of how we must understand the unmet needs of the user before we can enhance their experience. I don’t actually want a clean image – I want the bin there so I can joke about how I wish it wasn’t there.

And that is the story of this silly little (very important) photo. Come back in five more years for Part II.





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