Red Route Usability

The Basic Idea

Driving around a bustling city has its ups, but it also has its downs—traffic. Nobody likes traffic, especially when your quick 15-minute drive turns into a 45-minute arduous trek during rush hour. It plagues just about every major city. But if you have ever been to London, England, you may have noticed something unique about their roads: double red lines that extend most streets along the curb.

London has more cars on the road than they do parking spaces. If you choose to drive, trying to find a space to park your car often entails circling streets hoping to land on an empty spot that can just about fit. But, in recent years, this has become much harder thanks to the introduction of double red lines on major London roads. 

These indicate a complete ban on vehicles stopping, parking, or unloading. These roads, otherwise known as red routes, keep the roads clear so traffic can move swiftly and efficiently. Indeed, this initiative paid off (with a little intervention required from traffic wardens patrolling the roads).

What does this have to do with usability? Dr. David Travis had the idea of introducing this concept to the UX space. Red routes in UX design are the tasks users frequently perform on a website or application. These are the key paths or actions essential for users to achieve their main goals. By labeling these paths as red routes, designers can achieve two main objectives:

  1. Identify the most used/important features of a product
  2. Prioritize the relevant digital content and its functionality to help users seamlessly complete these key tasks.

Completing these elements while optimizing red routes ensures a smoother and more efficient user experience. This helps lead to higher user satisfaction and better overall performance of the application or website. 

According to Dr. Travis, red routes have five characteristics:2

1. Involve a complex task: The route to completing a key task should involve a multitude of steps to complete (i.e. it should not be a simple task).

2. Lead to task completion: It is more than being user-friendly. They should indicate a tangible measure of success. The user should be accomplishing something when using a red route.

3. Involve a common task: Red routes for one website should be similar to competing websites but simpler to use. So, they cannot be an activity uniquely found on one website. There should be some ability to carry over the red route to other sites.

4. Be goal-oriented

5. Be realistic: The focus of the red route should align with the customer’s objectives as well as the organization’s.

Red routing, a method of figuring out what the critical paths are, requires designers to create a matrix with two criteria. One is the number of users that perform the task and the other is the frequency with which users perform the task. Take the image below as an example.

colored boxes with text inside about frequency of use and volume of people using

Designers categorize the tasks that can be performed when using a digital product by how many of the total users perform the task and how often. This helps to identify the red route of the product (A.K.A tasks that are the most frequently completed by the highest number of users). These verge towards the top right corner of the matrix whereas the lower priority interactions inch toward the bottom left. 

The red routes end up being the highest priority content for the designer since they outline the most important activities being accomplished by the user. So by using the above example of shoppers on an e-commerce website, checking out and making payments should be the content designers focus on the most as opposed to signing up for the newsletter. 

The process of red routing highlights to designers the most important path to focus on. In turn, designers need to ensure that these paths provide a smooth user journey since they greatly contribute to users’ overall perception of a digital product.3 

Let’s go back to the e-commerce example. If the user’s journey to complete the red route of checking out and making a payment is confusing and complicated, the user will likely be frustrated with the product. However because this task is a critical one for users, the frustration will translate into a bad user experience overall. This is not what designers want to happen. So, designers make use of red routes to solve usability issues when doing a critical task in hopes that users will be happy with the product’s performance.

In a nutshell, a red route is the most important user path of a digital product. It is important because the activity being completed is considered the most frequently done by the greatest number of users. Identifying a red route (via the matrix above) marks to designers the user path they need to ensure performs the smoothest. This ends up contributing to users’ perception of a seamless digital experience. 

Define the red routes for your website and you’ll be able to identify and eliminate any usability obstacles on the key user journeys.


— Dr. David Travis, Creator of Red Route Usability

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Key Terms

User Journey: It is the sequence of steps that encapsulates a user’s entire interaction with a digital product to complete a goal they have in mind. Mapping out a user journey helps designers figure out the user behavior patterns and the pain points to resolve.

User Flow: Similar to a user journey but differing in scope, a user flow maps the steps users complete in a specific interaction with a digital product. It allows designers to identify areas of improvement for a smoother user experience.

Usability Testing: A method to examine whether a product is easy and effective to use. Researchers observe how users interact with the product and gather information on its issues to lead to product improvements.

History

Back in 1991, London, England, implemented red routes on their roads. The main purpose was to help traffic flow more freely through the capital without obstruction from stopped cars. The research on the effects of red routes on traffic was positive. Bus journeys were quicker and more reliable, and the number of road accidents was reduced.4

Seeing the success of red routes for traffic, Dr. Travis argued that we could apply the same philosophy to web design. He took the stance that when critical and frequent paths users take on a website are treated like red routes, designers are the traffic police that work to eliminate any usability obstacles that stand in the way of seamless interaction. 

This idea took hold in the UX community. It has since become an integral part of modern UX design practices. Designers employ techniques like user journey mapping, usability testing, and data analytics to inform the red routes of their websites. Identifying the red routes allows designers to optimize them so that users’ needs are met more efficiently and effectively.

People

David Travis: A British psychologist and author who specializes in user experience strategy. His work on red route usability emphasizes the importance of understanding user priorities and designing interfaces that support the smooth completion of essential tasks. Travis’ latest book on user experience, “Think Like A UX Researcher”, was published in 2019.

Consequences

We know that red routes can improve a user’s perception of a digital product’s performance by making sure that these common tasks do not have any usability obstacles. But how? 

Digital products can serve an unfathomable number of users. But this means that product developers have loads of competing user needs to try to address. Red routing helps to organize these needs into their level of importance for the best product experience. As a result, designers can determine what the common issues are amongst their users and figure out a solution. By solving common and key usability issues, users are likely to experience a smooth interaction with the website or application. This helps to create a perception of a fantastic digital experience as designers make sure that the tasks users are more likely to complete run as seamlessly as possible. Since users are less likely to perform obscure tasks, making sure they run smoothly doesn’t impact user’s overall perception as much. 

Red routes also produce actionable results.5 According to Dr. Travis, two key characteristics of red routes are that they are goal-oriented and realistic. So, fixing up a red route, in theory, should lead designers to focus on a feature of a product to improve its critical function. This should produce tangible improvements in the performance of the product.

Finally, red routes keep designs user-centered. They decide for designers what to focus on based on user insights. Not what designers think users want. By informing directions for improvement of a product from its users, designers can ensure that the product is truly serving the needs of its users.

Controversies

While there aren’t any notable controversies surrounding red routes, some professionals in the UX community may have reservations about its heavy use.

For one, placing high-priority attention on red routes only may lead designers to neglect other aspects of the user journey. Secondary tasks still contribute to the overall user experience. Let’s go back to the e-commerce example. Say the company wants to drive more people to sign up for the newsletter to help with its marketing efforts. But if the company’s UX design team relies too much on red routing, it will lead to little focus on this aspect as it isn’t something that a lot of users are already doing. Ultimately, the task of signing up for a newsletter is left to the periphery. Perhaps taking a more holistic approach may produce a more comprehensive UX design.

On a similar note, red routes may cause designers to inadvertently develop tunnel vision. Overly emphasizing improving the specific red routes of a product can risk overlooking broader user needs. This could produce designs that perform spectacularly on certain tasks but horrifically on others.

What would Uber's Red Route Look Like?

When someone asks you what Uber is, you can give them a 4-word answer. A ride-sharing app. So, it is no surprise that the red route of the Uber app is requesting a ride. The red route may look something like this:

1. Selecting a drop-off location

2. Selecting a pick-up location

3. Choosing ride type

4. Ordering the ride

Uber’s app designers utilize this breakdown of a red route to ensure that every step is functioning optimally. Say there have been reported usability issues with step 3. Designers would investigate it and come up with a solution that would provide a smoother ability to choose a ride. Focusing on this particular red route can help enhance the reputation of Uber’s app amongst its users since the most commonly performed task on the app is hailing a ride. If the ride-hailing process is smooth, i.e. the red route is without usability obstacles, then users are likely to enjoy using the app overall.

Related TDL Content

User Journey Maps

Figuring out how usable a product is marks an important step in its development. This is where user journey maps come in. They are a visual representation of all the interactions a user experiences with a product. It allows product developers to put themselves in the shoes of their users and test out the app in their eyes. Doing so reveals the good of the app and the areas that can be improved for a better user experience. Read more about it in this TDL article.

User Flow

Unlike a user journey map, user flows map all the interactions a user experiences to finish a specific call to action. Whether it be purchasing a product on Amazon or reserving a table on Resy. Creating a user flow of these specific interactions zooms into the nooks and crannies of the application so that product developers can iron out their kinks for a more efficient user experience.

Usability Testing

We determine how easy and intuitive a product is by testing it. We ask users to try out a product in a systematic manner. By keeping tabs on their behavior and their feedback, product developers can seek solutions to create a better product. Check out TDL’s article for a deeper dive into usability testing.

References

  1. Travis, D. (n.d.-a). How red routes can help you take charge of your product backlog. Www.userfocus.co.uk. https://www.userfocus.co.uk/articles/prioritising-functions.html
  2. Travis, D. (n.d.-b). Red route usability: The key user journeys with your web site. Www.userfocus.co.uk. https://www.userfocus.co.uk/articles/redroutes.html
  3. Tawanghar, A. (2018, March 24). Red Routing - Top Tasks UX Techniques. LinkedIn. https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/red-routing-top-tasks-ux-techniques-art-tawanghar/
  4. See 1. 
  5. Koyewon. (2022, January 11). Identifying red routes in your product. Medium. https://bootcamp.uxdesign.cc/identifying-red-routes-in-the-product-e944d401c9ca 

About the Author

Samantha Lau

Samantha Lau

Samantha graduated from the University of Toronto, majoring in psychology and criminology. During her undergraduate degree, she studied how mindfulness meditation impacted human memory which sparked her interest in cognition. Samantha is curious about the way behavioural science impacts design, particularly in the UX field. As she works to make behavioural science more accessible with The Decision Lab, she is preparing to start her Master of Behavioural and Decision Sciences degree at the University of Pennsylvania. In her free time, you can catch her at a concert or in a dance studio.

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