When I attended the University of New Hampshire, it was located in a small town with a limited number of restaurants and stores in one central area.
None of us had cars and public transportation was spotty so everyone walked everywhere. There was one path we always took to get to the convenience store, restaurants, bars. This major hub for students had this layout:
If you examine this map closely, you’ll notice two busy one-way streets merging downtown. In this map, all the traffic, both cars and the majority of walkers, was headed towards the right, where the bars and stores were.
At one point there was a crosswalk that everyone used, drawn in blue below.
The reason no one used it should be clear from the map. To get to where you wanted to go (across the street and to the right), you had to first go against your natural direction and backtrack. Also in this new formulation you had to cross two roads rather than just a single one.
I used to watch section of the street often because my apartment overlooked it and I regularly read novels and smoked cigarettes at the coffee shop nearby. I would sit there for hours, watching enormous groups of students cross the street along the old path where the crosswalk used to be. Not a single group used the newly installed crosswalk, it was too much of a hassle. Something dictated from up high with no regard to how people actually functioned.
Once I was sitting at the coffee shop with two friends, Steve and Bob. Steve noticed the same traffic pattern I did and said, “Someone should repaint that crosswalk.” The other friend, Bob, sat back in his seat, stroked his chin sagely and said, “That’s a good idea.”
Later that summer at 4 am on a Tuesday night, Bob did just that. In an act of “helpful vandalism”, he repainted the crosswalk. He videotaped the act for posterity using my apartment window. You can watch it here:
Feel free to skip around but some key parts are at 2:30 when a car comes by and Bob runs and it happens again at 5:00. You can also see where the cars leave a trail of wet paint on the road.
Bob would later to get his PhD in data visualization but I think his true calling was in user design. He realized one important thing about good UI – it’s more important to notice how users actually use something and not how you want them to use it.