What Socrates taught me about UX design

Lauren Glazer
Jun 7, 2019 · 3 min read
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When I was in high school, I was really into winning arguments, so I decided to major in philosophy. I know what you’re thinking — I spent a lot of time reading and writing about people and ideas from over 100 years ago, so it makes a lot of sense that I went into a visual field in an industry that’s as current as it gets. What is the connection?

1. Always back up your assertions with reason

Whenever you make a design decision, you should always be able to justify that decision with reasoning. A good designer can explain the logic behind why they put a button where they put it, or why that button is the color that it is. Essentially, they are able to create an argument around their case. You know who was really into creating rational arguments to justify their belief systems? Every philosopher ever.

In the Republic, Socrates doesn’t say, “You guys have messed up ideas about utopia and justice. The end.” He asks directed questions in order to understand the reasoning that people have behind the ideas that they claim to believe in. When presented with design, you should always ask why before making judgments in order to see the reasoning behind why things are the way that they are.

2. Consider the out of the ordinary

Philosophy is all about logic, because it’s always trying to answer questions we don’t know the answer to. This means that when presented with an argument like, “all unmarried males are bachelors,” you should be able to challenge it and come back with some random unintuitive thing like, “what about children? Would you call a 10-year-old a bachelor?”. Similarly, in design, you must always be asking yourself about all the unusual ways that a user might behave, and try to account for them.

It’s important to design for every possible scenario, especially the edge cases, because human behavior is unpredictable. Consider creating a user profile: You’re expecting someone named “Jane Doe”, but what if a potential user is actually named Elizabeth Mary von-why-is-your-name-so-long-ington? Can you account for the length of that name in a user profile?

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3. Ask questions

You might believe that an app you are testing and want to improve is terrible, but it’s also possible that you are wrong. Sort of like philosophy, you might expect you could never be wrong, but you are. How do you find out? Ask questions.

Guerilla user testing is in and of itself a form of reverse Socratic Method. As the interviewer, you approach random strangers on the street (just like Socrates) and ask them questions. Only, your questions are about testing out an application, and your theories are supposed to be wrong. Socrates spotted errors in reasoning and then told people what to think (though he was always claiming he knew nothing?). You are constantly asking your interview subjects to find errors in your application, and then listening to their responses. Don’t worry, you won’t have to drink any Hemlock.

4. Be an Empiricist

Socrates was not an empiricist because empiricism technically didn’t come about until the 17th and 18th centuries thanks to philosophers like Locke and Hume. However, when faced with the choice between rationalism (the belief that truths can come about solely through internal reasoning) and empiricism (the belief that organized testing can lead to universal truths) in UX design, you should opt to be an empiricist. Research is important. There are many theories about what might inspire users to behave a certain way, but the most important thing is measuring the way that they really do.

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