Wandering off the desire path

Alastair Somerville
3 min readApr 22, 2018

I was talking about design for cognitive diversity this week at UXD Healthcare. You can download the slidedeck here.

It was a talk that tried to show how we need to recognise and design for current needs (particularly in terms of environments that are open to use by people with dementia and autistic people), near future needs (the increase in number of older adults and related cognitive impairments) and future needs (the changes wrought as cognitive assistance and augmentation becomes available).

Out of the labs

At core, the talk was about person centered design. That design solution are meaningless without people, users, at the centre of them. At the start of project, during design process and all the way through testing and sale.

You need to make space, literally and figuratively, for people in your organisation and in your processes.

You need to use tools that involve, empower and enable people to say what is needed and to ensure that essential needs are met throughout the process.

Your space must become their place.

Companies keep building labs as tho their users are to be pinned down and examined.

Perhaps, it’d be better to build markets, parks and cafes. Places people can make their own so you discover what they know and they need.

Off the paths

One other thing that came out of discussions afterwards was a discussion of desire paths.

I have been doing some work lately on building architecture that is more open to people with dementia and autistic people. One of the things that has come up is spaces for decompression, to escape the sensory load of places and crowds, and to recover a sense of self and re-centre around personal intent.

A doctor at the UXD conference spoke about a spare room next to their General Practice waiting room.

The waiting room was bright and busy. The spare room was never properly fitted out: it had been meant for a purpose that had never been finished.

People use the spare room. It’s quiet, it’s dim, it’s not crowded. They’ve moved chairs into it.

The doctors have now put a screen in there so people know when they’re being called. Apart from that, they’ve left it be. People have made the space into a place that works.

This is what design off the desire path can be about.

Valuing the quiet spaces and not filling them with your stuff.

Lightly enhancing places with things that empower and enable.

Understanding that though you may own and control spaces that your users will create their own places in them. This is natural and it is good.

Make space for people in your processes and your spaces.

Let them inform your designs and create their own places.

Your desire path isn’t the only desire path.

Wander off and let other people guide you.



Alastair Somerville

Sensory Design Consultant, usability researcher and workshop facilitator. www.linkedin.com/in/alastair-somerville-b48b368 Twitter @acuity_design & @visceralUX