Understand UX by Getting Lost

When someone tells you to “get lost,” you don’t usually follow their advice. But that was exactly what I did two years ago in an art class I took while studying abroad in London.

The instructions were simple.

    1.  Travel to a designated museum or archive, assigned at random by my professor.
    2. Start from that location, clear my mind of typical behavior like trying to get from point A to point B as fast as possible, and instead walk in any direction I felt like, guided only by curiosity.

Called a Dérive, meaning “drift” in French, this practice has roots in avant-garde art of the mid-20th century. A term first coined by Guy Debord, Dérives were used as a way for artists and the politically-minded to break out of their normal routines and see their cities through new eyes.

With my professor’s instructions in mind, I blocked off my Sunday afternoon, travelled to my assigned starting location outside the building of the Wellcome Collection and tried to get lost.

It was harder than I expected.

I stood on the street corner and contemplated my first step. Facing the “Don’t walk” signal across from me, I tried to decide if I should cross the street. But crossing the street is what I normally do, I thought to myself. I’m trying to do something different. It quickly became apparent that I was thinking too hard. Trying to break out of my normal behavior was not something I could do in a single step through sheer force of will.

Busy street corner near Wellcome Collection


I realized that to get lost, I had to stop thinking and just walk.

So I did. The light turned green and I crossed the street because I felt like crossing the street. I was curious about what I couldn’t see on the other side of a building, so I walked around it to find out. This pattern of being pulled by my curiosity in one direction until I felt like going in another quickly led me away from the busy road I had started on and through quieter residential neighborhoods.

After 3 miles and 70 minutes of walking I had accidentally found my way in and out of Regent’s Park, unintentionally through Camden Market, and all the connecting neighborhoods in between.

Getting lost in London is one of my favorite memories of studying abroad. I’ve found that letting my curiosity take the driver’s seat is something I can do in multiple areas of my life. By walking through the city without an agenda I found myself in the connecting spaces between the important map points, viewing architecture composed not just of buildings, but also the people, animals and objects that fill the spaces of a city. I found that connection again when I learned about user experience (UX) design for the web.

Two images: The first is an urban road lined with apartments, the second a grassy park with a line of trees in the distance.
You’d never know this park is just around the corner

Designing the user experience for your website is like building a city your visitors can walk through. A UX designer must think about the significant features as well as the smaller elements that could possibly link back to a key feature. Like planning where to build a park in a city, the designer has to think about all possible paths a visitor can take to get to that park, whether their route be a popular street or a less-popular path through a back alley. Likewise, a website’s layout should facilitate logical movement through the site for users with different goals, whether it be seeking out specific information or just wandering the website. And like a city, the big-picture plan has to come first, before you add the fun design details.

But what if you already have a website?

The practice of purposely getting lost can also assist in evaluating the UX and design of an existing site. If you are responsible for updating and adding content to your site, you’re very familiar with it, and it can be difficult to identify where unfamiliar users might experience problems. You know the location of the business hours because you checked three times last week to make sure your holiday announcement was posted. But new users might not think to check for your hours two levels down in the “about us” section.  

Two images: In the first a happy couple looks at a map, the woman smiling and pointing in the direction of the second image, which is an image of a webpage's menu to highlight good UX.
Make sure your layout acts as a roadmap for users and not a roadblock

When evaluating your website’s current UX it is important to put your expectations to the side; don’t think about the layout, about logical paths, or about a solution. Just let your curiosity take you through the website, following links you want to follow and seeing where they lead you. If a site has a well-designed architecture, users will feel comfortable diving in headfirst and becoming completely immersed. Like a well-designed city, if users do lose their way, they’ll know they can rely on well-placed signs and intuitive geography to guide them to where they want to be.

On the other hand, we’ve all been to those cities that are a pain to navigate—full of one way streets, weird intersections, and bad signage. Getting lost in a poorly architected city or website ensures your visitors will become frustrated, and may turn even the most curious wanderers away with no desire to stay and explore. 

When looking at your website, it can be challenging to break out of your normal mindset. If you’re used to thinking about something one way, changing your point of view can feel like trying to move a mountain. To shift your thinking, take a Dérive of your own when you next have free time. It doesn’t have to be through a city, and it doesn’t have to last for hours. Explore your local neighborhood, take a new path to work, or even explore your favorite museum’s website. All you have to do is let your curiosity take the reins and enjoy the journey. So get lost!