Stoicism and UX: Memento Mori

We translate this practice of death remembrance to service and user experience design to embolden our perspective.

Michael Schofield
Nov 30, 2018 · 5 min read

Where is the horse gone? Where the rider? Where the giver of treasure? Where are the seats at the feast? Where are the revels in the hall? … How that time has passed away, dark under the cover of night, as if it had never been. — The Wanderer


Remember, you will die. Everyone you will ever know will die. You, as they, will be forgotten. No one will remember your name.

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

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

The UX Charnel House

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.

They are the humbling aid whispering in your ear: “Look behind you. Remember, you are mortal. You will die.”


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High-level practical design thinking by Michael Schofield

Michael Schofield

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User Experience Development Lead @WhereByUs. 🎙 Metric: the User Experience Design Podcast (metricpodcast.com).

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High-level practical design thinking by Michael Schofield