How Cow Trails Expose Design Flaws


A school official complained to us about the problem of unsightly “cow trails” on an otherwise beautiful university campus in Florida. These were trails of dead grass created from people repeatedly walking over the same area. He blamed the inconsiderate student population for refusing to use the sidewalks. They defiantly walked from building to building over his well-manicured lawn.

The question was asked, “Why don’t you pave the cow trails?” To which the official blustered, “That would look terrible!”

Here’s what happened: As the school’s student population increased, buildings were added to accommodate the growth. While these new buildings were both beautiful and functional, officials failed to plan for how students and faculty would commute from building to building.

There were three primary factors that led to the formation of cow trails:

  1. Students were in a hurry. The campus and its buildings were massive. Students had little time to scurry from one side of campus to another, so they sought the fastest route. And, we all know the shortest distance between two points is a straight line.

  2. It’s hot and humid in Florida. Another reason why students sought the fastest route from building to building was to get out of the sun. Taking the long way to class was an uncomfortable and unreasonable proposition.

  3. The sidewalks connecting many of the buildings led to a central courtyard and from there to other buildings. This was an aesthetically pleasing design, but not very practical. In order to walk to a building directly next door, a student would follow the sidewalk leading away from her destination before connecting with another sidewalk leading to her destination. So, students created their own walkways in the form of cow trails. Could you really blame them?

Eventually officials displayed signs that read, “Keep off the grass.” These worked until the first student decided to disregard them. That created enough social proof for other students to follow suit. The signs were useless and eventually removed.

The layout of the campus was not designed with the students in mind. If it were, there wouldn’t be cow trails connecting buildings. There would be aesthetically pleasing walkways that would offer both form and function.

I’m sure there were a thousand factors that went into where each new building was erected, but for whatever reason, how students and faculty commuted around campus was not one of them. Or maybe it was, but that factor was not as important as other factors. Either way, the university will have to live with its cow trails.

Cow trails happen in business as well. And, just like that college campus, they expose our design flaws. In essence, cow trails reflect unexpected and often unwanted human behavior. They are how customers use our products, systems, and software in the real world and are typically a result of either poor planning or a trade off.

The customer is not always right, but she isn’t stupid either. There is a reason why she uses your system or product “incorrectly.” There is a reason why she only uses some functions of your program, but not others. There is a reason why she continues to walk on the grass and it probably has nothing to do with education or communication. Your KEEP OFF THE GRASS sign won’t fix the problem because the cow trail isn’t the problem. It’s a symptom.

In business, those little customer experience inconveniences and inefficiencies add up. If you’re lucky, your customers will stay with you and continue to walk on their cow trails. Unfortunately, if they decide to leave they won’t always tell you why—they’ll just leave. It doesn’t take much of a migration to reach critical mass. That’s when it’s too late. When your customers have found suitable alternatives, they won’t come back. Game over.

Your customers are not cattle, but they will leave cow trails. Paving them is sloppy and unsightly. It’s a much better approach to design with your customer in mind and avoid them altogether… because those cow trails will eventually lead to your competitor’s doorstep.

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