Whether designing walkways or IT systems, carefully thought-out design will generally be trumped by users. Humans follow the path of least resistance, literally making their own footpaths. Architects designing campuses in US universities have learned to wait for students to trample the grass between buildings before laying paved walkways.
If the campus designers tried to force the students to use the steps in this example (the designed solution) the students will likely ignore the instructions or find ways around the barriers. They literally vote with their feet. They call these ‘desire paths’ and rather than fight against them, they build the paths that match their use.
Students aren’t smarter than designers. They would be no better at predicting the best pathways than the professionals. The best paths emerge from real usage.
Desire Paths for IT Systems
You can see the same battle played out between the designers of IT systems and their users. The IT architects and planners lay out how the systems will be used, and prescribe workflows to prevent users doing anything unsafe or improper.
When the new system goes live, users invariably find some parts frustrating and develop workarounds. IT teams using Agile and user experience (UX) techniques, will take these workarounds as inspirations to enhance the application.
Still workarounds remain. Users keep creating their own ‘desire paths’. Once you know where to look you will see them all over your business.
Spreadsheets are the desire paths in corporate life.
What should IT do? Like the university official, they have a choice:
- Define policies to limit spreadsheet usage (signs and barriers); or
- Treat them as a signal for improvements.
Typical IT policy states that spreadsheets should only be used for personal productivity.
- If it is important to the business, IT is responsible for support.
- IT has limited resources and must focus on supporting core applications, not user-developed applications.
- If you want a new business application, IT can help. But join the queue, so your project can be prioritized.
The reality is different. In every large firm, users create spreadsheets to get stuff done:
- “We this need now, we can’t wait for IT.”
- “It’s not a big deal – I can just knock something up in a spreadsheet.”
IT turns a blind eye. Instead of treating spreadsheets as a nuisance to be swept under the carpet, IT should view them as an opportunity.
Put aside for the moment how spreadsheet technology is unreliable, insecure, and error-prone. These are your users’ desire paths. In amongst these spreadsheets are real opportunities for improving the business.
- Users care enough about these problems to invest time fixing them.
- There is a gap in the current systems or they would not have bothered.
- They have already refined the users’ requirements, tested the logic, and shared.
Spreadsheets are Not the Enemy
Spreadsheets are excellent for productivity of individuals – and their usability encourages them to be used beyond “personal” use.
Without any special training, most people can build useful spreadsheets. Even if they were originally intended for use by one person, the best ones inevitably get shared around.
The problem comes when teams and business processes start to rely on these spreadsheets. The flexibility that allows business professionals to build almost any application with spreadsheets creates major weaknesses.
- Data and logic errors.
- Unauthorized or unattributed changes.
- Uncontrolled access to data and intellectual property.
- Multiple copies of a spreadsheet being updated in parallel.
Spreadsheet technology is simply not designed for multi-user business applications. The technology is not where the value lies. The value is all the work users have put into building them.
At LiveDataset, we have always encouraged our clients to send us their spreadsheets. And almost always, they’ve been using a spreadsheet until they realised that they needed a proper system.
The traditional approach to systems development would have us interview users, hold planning workshops, and document the requirements.
Starting from a spreadsheet is much, much faster and far more accurate. Like a desire path, a well-used spreadsheet shows us:
- This is an important process not just a nice-to-have.
- What data is important and where it comes from.
- What business logic is required.
- What are the most common examples and where the exceptions exist.
- How people analyse and report on this data.
There are spreadsheets circulating in your organization that are so important to your business that they have outgrown spreadsheet technology. Leverage the business logic, design, and analysis that your team have put in and turn them into proper systems.
Desire Paths for LiveDataset
We built LiveDataset to replace for spreadsheet technology for multi-user systems and processes, allowing many people to work together on the same set of organized data. We are constantly learning how spreadsheets and LiveDataset usage show us desire paths within organizations.
There are hotspots of intense spreadsheet activity in large firms, none more so than the office of the CFO. We can see patterns where Finance teams in many firms are building spreadsheets that address similar problems. This tells us:
- These problems are important.
- There are still gaps where Finance software does not cover all their needs.
In 2019, we will go beyond the LiveDataset data management platform and start providing more solutions around the business logic and presentation. Solutions that complement firms’ existing core systems (like SAP, HR systems etc) and leverage the intellectual investment building spreadsheets.