These are the first of 52 meditations on stoicism, design, and development. Feel free to read them in order or jump around, whichever you like.
Each day, Monday — Friday, I write brief morning emails about applying the practice of stoicism to your design work as a means to benchmark the day, get your head right, and craft virtuously. On Sunday, I’ll compile these and publish here on Medium.
Table of Contents
- Craft Virtuously introduces stoicism and how it shapes the core tenets of what I consider to be a stoic service design worldview.
- Death Remembrance introduces the concept of memento mori and, rather than bumming us out, out it liberates our product and service design decisions.
- Kill Your Products is all about how the product is a means to an end in a larger service provision; knowing that your product or your code has an end-of-life the moment it begins prepares you for letting it go.
- UX Charnel House is a killer way to keep your head and your team humble when you’re doing great work.
For me, these are a daily practice that help set the tone for the rest of the day.
January 1, 2019
Today, we start an ambitious project. Each day — well, work day — I commit to doing my best to write you briefly about the role of stoicism in design. I promise no earth-shattering wisdom, these aren’t letters from guru to guree (yikes) meant to be contemplated silently; rather, we’re more like pen pals working together to develop a mindful habit. The axiom we start with is that stoicism, as a tool, makes us better designers and developers. Stoicism is a philosophy of self-governance dating back to the third century B.C.E. made immortal by Epictetus, Seneca, and Marcus Aurelius, internalized by great leaders and thinkers into modern history, and brought to the popular attention of the technology world by Tim Ferris, who makes the Tao of Seneca available for free. Its core tenets are useful for prioritizing what matters, to avoid destructive emotions like anxiety that seem prevalent in the kind of work we do. For me, this email is a daily practice to exercise this muscle. My service design worldview is simple:
- even the best user experience depreciates
- the product is a means to an end
- the deadline probably isn’t
- user loyalty to your service or brand is ephemeral
- reflecting on these daily makes it easier for me to shrug the neuroticism endemic to startup culture and to prioritize my day and stick to it against the tides of scope creep.
My hope is that by drafting these publicly I make my calm infectious, because I believe calm makes design-work better. The reality is that you and I might be competitors, now or later, but what’s good for your user experience is good for my user experience; as you raise the bar, I must raise the bar. If you haven’t, consider reading Stoicism and UX: Memento Mori
Stoicism and UX: Memento Mori
We translate this practice of death remembrance to service and user experience design to embolden our perspective.
January 2, 2019
They say that after a victory, Roman generals parading their legions before an uproarious, worshiping crowd, would be accompanied by an aid who whispered in their ear: “Respice post te. Hominem te esse memento. Memento mori.”
This practice is not about sucking the air out of the room. It’s designed to shape perspective, to make clear what matters. It is a productivity tool, a prioritizing meditation to cut the fat off the soul. Death doesn’t make your time pointless, but purposeful.
“Let us prepare our minds as if we’d come to the very end of life. Let us postpone nothing. Let us balance life’s books each day. … The one who puts the finishing touches on their life each day is never short of time.” — Seneca
We can translate this practice of death remembrance to service and user experience design merely by thinking on the likes of the DotComs whose burial mounds shape the landscape and whose bones mortar the foundation of the web. Where are they now?
They merely go where your company goes. They just got there first.
For markets where the user experience is the differentiating factor (see aggregation theory), your users’ loyalty extends only so far that you consistently complete the job that needs done better than someone else. The end-user experience depreciates over time unless you improve on existing or add new features, which costs more than the previous features to maintain, and — like the body — wrinkles deepen. This is useful because it is humbling.
Kill Your Products
January 3, 2019
In libraries, there’s this belief system that librarians — like me — carry deep in in our marrow that says, hey, people love libraries. From this sprout there branches all sorts of little maxims that have made their way into the fabric of librarianship doctrine, such as the one about how a librarian is better than a search engine any day. But the reason people love libraries is because of the services they provide; and, now, some of these services are provided better elsewhere. The pressures of the user experience being the differentiator have challenged librarians to discover and better communicate what it is libraries are to great success — and what they are is hyperlocal, they’re whatever their communities need them to be. Some are communal hackerspaces; others lend guitars; some curate people — local experts — like they might books. Some no longer have books, most don’t have as many as they once did. More and more forewent library fines, library cards, even. They changed. They improved. In some incredibly broad analogy, this was a kind of little death. To stop providing a traditional service in order to provide another squeezes the soul; these are hard decisions. Because user experience is a key performance indicator, and because user experience depreciates, survival requires organizations to watch experience metrics like they’re constellations in the night. They otherwise miss the signs. In service design the product is a means to an end. If the service I provide is to tell you the local news, then the product — an internal content management system used to create the content — is not an end unto itself. It is as useful only as long as it fulfills the needs of that service. As the demands on the service shift, so does the design of the product.
However, as stoics, we are not married to it. As soon as we write the first line of code, we inscribe an end-of-life for the product in the heavens.
Accepting now that such a product isn’t forever makes it easier to make the right user experience design decision, which may be to kill the product when adapting it to the ever-changing landscape is more detriment than not.
“You could leave life right now. Let that determine what you do and say and think.” — Marcus Aurelius
UX Charnel House
January 4, 2019
Charnel houses sometimes artfully exhibit human remains unearthed while digging graves. They’re bone deposits, grim reminders of our fate.
Consistent user research unearths plenty of truisms about the quality of your service. Like youtube comments for the soul, we willfully perform this grave diggery to identify pain points in a customer journey that give meaning and direction to our design work.
Catalog these well, and make it easy to revisit the worst of the comments, your negative feedback. This is your charnel house. Visit often.
You who regularly look at comments that come along with Net Promoter Scores know that it’s not the promoters that say anything useful — I love it! I recommend it every day! — it’s your detractors.
Remember that it’s not to detract from your service’s successes. We perform user experience research so we can adapt to it, so that we can increase that metric that is the user experience. Hopefully, we’re all working on projects that are net positive.
Rather, the point of the charnel house is as tool to keep your ego in check. The user experience depreciates. There’s more work to be done. Your detractors are pointing at weaknesses in your service. You know what to do.
Celebrate your new membership program, your new redesign, your new feature-set today, but on Monday review your charnel house and take action. Craft virtuously.
Clapping (👏) is a super way to brighten my day. Check out my podcast Metric: The User Experience Design Podcast (right here on Medium), and consider subscribing to my newsletter Doing User Experience Work. ❤ It goes a long way if you’re able to support this kind of thinking on Patreon.