BCS SPA Software in Practice

24th – 26th June 2019

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Paving the Cow Paths: Finding and Leveraging User-Generated Documentation

Strategies to leverage existing amateur documentation to give your users the docs they crave

75 minutes


We've all seen user-generated documentation - a sign posted on a doorway, a sticky note on a screen, a hastily composed (and probably ugly) procedures document passed person to person after a big error got the department in trouble. It's easy to look at these amateur efforts and scoff, but they're the nucleus of a particular kind of documentation: the cow path.

In design, "cow paths" or "desire paths" show how users want to use a system - the path they want to take through a campus or the way they want to mention someone on Twitter. By formalizing these paths, designers can integrate functionality they're already certain users want. The same principle applies in documentation.

In this talk, I go into more depth about what "cow paths" even are, how they point us to design or documentation updates that can make the biggest difference to our audiences, and how to begin working with users to improve their own documentation efforts and pave their own ways.

Audience background

An understanding of documentation basics welcome but not required

Benefits of participating

Participants will learn how to bootstrap a documentation effort based on existing desire lines (cow paths), how to create better documentation themselves, how to galvanize users to formalize their desire lines, and how to use "cow path" documentation to improve the product itself.

Materials provided

Typical examples of "cow path" documentation, slide deck


1. Short presentation about what "cowpaths" are in design and documentation, why our users use them, and why it's to our advantage to "pave" them. Overview of the qualities of good documentation.
2. Exercise 1: Brainstorm where your users are looking for documentation.
3. Exercise 2: Find cowpath documentation "in the wild."
4. Exercise 3: Guided review of the document participants have found, with a focus on verifying correctness.
5. Exercise 4: Guided review of the document participants have found, with a focus on clarity.
6. Overview of how participants can continue to improve the documentation for their users. Short discussion of how attendees can apply lessons learned from this session in their own organizations. Provide suggestions about how to open a dialog with users about the kinds of documentation they need and want.

Detailed timetable

00:00 - 00:10: Short presentation/description of cow path documentation
00:10 - 00:14: Exercise 1 (brainstorm)
00:14 - 00:15: Quick discussion of exercise 1
00:15 - 00:25: Exercise 2
00:25 - 00:30: Quick discussion of exercise 2
00:30 - 00:40: Exercise 3
00:40 - 00:45: Quick discussion of exercise 3
00:45 - 00:55: Exercise 4
00:55 - 00:65: Quick discussion of exercise 4
00:65 - 00:70: Closing and how to apply lessons learned


- Summary
- Talking points


  1. Erin Grace