Practice really hearing


"Practice really hearing what people say. Do your best to get inside their minds." - Marcus Aurelius

If stoicism is a practice of embracing what is in your control and reminding yourself what's not, then what odd advice. What, after all, is more outside of your control than what's going on in my head?

Empathy is a tool for correcting for your own biases. When your boss is short with you, it's natural for anxiety about your job to bubble-up and just ruin your day. That anxiety is soothed, though, when you know your boss is having a really hard time at home.

You may, as a practiced stoic designer, react to your anxiety here in either circumstance the same way. But greater context definitely makes it easier.

We see and vouch for the benefit of "practicing empathy" in design work all the time, right? It sounds a little foreign to phrase it like that, but what we're doing with usability testing is generating enough understanding to make the next strategic decision.

Getting inside of our users' heads provides context and evidence for the choices we make about what's actually in our control: the service we provide.

Craft virtuously.

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Remember that design is not art, but a practice.

Resolve to know what you control

The end of year reckoning is often a punch to the gut, but it shouldn't be.

Ambition means tying your well-being to what other people say or do. Self-indulgence means tying it to the things that happen to you. Sanity means tying it to your own actions.

— Marcus Aurelius

How concerned are you with the sound of your job title? I care. To me, a good job title can act like a key that, in a speaker’s or writer’s bio, at a networking event, on twitter, wherever, can unlock clout. But how much of the job title - let alone you being hired in the first place - is really in your control?

What, if anything, did you treat yourself to over the holidays? How much of your sense of well-being is tied to the roof over your head, the number of shows you binged, or what’s in the fridge? How much of any of that is in your control?

The end of the year is wrapped-up in self-evaluation and resolution, and what I would encourage us to carry in to the new year is appreciation for how little is actually within our sphere of control. We can control our actions - but circumstance, opportunity, luck: the greater part of the mix that are our careers? - we can only control how we act or react.

What sense is there in tying our happiness to a lottery? Consider, instead, resolving to

  • be less reactive

  • think first

  • and memento mori 💀

for a Happy New Year.

Craft virtuously,
Michael Schofield

Please take a second to ❤ this post. Or, if you’re new here, subscribe to Stoic Designer.

Remember that design is not art, but a practice.

Scipio's Villa and the Product Over Time


I am resting at the country-house which once belonged to Scipio Africanus himself; and I write to you after doing reverence to his spirit and to an altar which I am inclined to think is the tomb of that great warrior. — Seneca, “On Scipio’s Villa”

Scipio Africanus was a consul and general of ancient Rome — a famous one. He defeated Hannibal, an enemy of Rome widely considered one of the greatest military commanders in history. Some 200 years after his death, our boy Seneca vacationed in one of Scipio’s homes.

There, he wrote a lot about Scipio’s bath. Bear with the excerpts:

I have inspected the house, which is c onstructed of hewn stone; the wall which encloses a forest; the towers also, buttressed out on both sides for the purpose of defending the house; the well, concealed among buildings and shrubbery, large enough to keep a whole army supplied; and the small bath, buried in darkness according to the old style, for our ancestors did not think that one could have a hot bath except in darkness. It was therefore a great pleasure to me to contrast Scipio’s ways with our own.

This bath was apparently to a certain Roman class unfit.

But who in these days could bear to bathe in such a fashion? We think ourselves poor and mean if our walls are not resplendent with large and costly mirrors; … if our swimming-pools are not lined with Thasian marble; … and finally, if the water has not poured from silver spigots. … We have become so luxurious that we will have nothing but precious stones to walk upon.

In this bath of Scipio’s there are tiny chinks—you cannot call them windows—cut out of the stone wall in such a way as to admit light without weakening the fortifications; nowadays, however, people regard baths as fit only for moths if they have not been so arranged that they receive the sun all day long through the widest of windows ….

In the early days, however, there were few baths, and they were not fitted out with any display. For why should men elaborately fit out that which, costs a penny only, and was invented for use, not merely for delight?

“Poor fool,” they say, “he did not know how to live!”

As much as it looks like this letter’s taking this trajectory, Seneca isn’t really bemoaning the then-current Roman’s extreme opulence. Rather, he’s making a point — not the only point, but a big one — about the minimum viable product.

Scipio’s bath was a solution designed for a functional job-to-be-done: he got dirty when working outside, so he bathed. Seneca actually makes the point that Scipio’s generation washed-off sweat and dirt, but the job-to-be-done of Roman baths contemporary to Seneca had changed from wash off dirt to wash off ointments and perfumes. The windows of Scipio’s bath were narrow and defensible. Those 200 years later in Rome did not require defense.

We can look at this like the roadmap of a service over time. Even a core job to be done — to safely wash dirt and sweat — given enough time wobbles on its axis, and what was demonstrable user need for safety diminishes enough in favor of other priorities: comfort, duration of bath, society. The new job to be done resembles the original, but requirements for the service provided have changed.

Different features — broader windows, hotter temperatures — with demonstrable need were added to Roman baths over time. With that time, what were surely attractive, newfangled features at some point became basic expectations: for Seneca’s contemporaries, it was no longer a nice feature to have a hot bath, but a prerequisite for basic service.

One of the Stoic Designer themes here is that the product is ephemeral: it is a means to an end, not an end unto itself. What we haven’t explored as much is that the service isn’t static, either, its life-cycle is just longer than the product. Jobs to be done are like meandering rivers. External pressures — good and bad — make the river wind this way, then that way, and over time they become all different rivers - or they dry-up entirely.

In Seneca’s letter about Scipio’s Villa, he tries to make the point that contemporary Romans should try to understand as much about the time of Scipio as much as Scipio-the-person to fully put into perspective his style of living. It is a lesson about putting yourself in another person’s shoes. To Stoic Designers, though, this is also a lesson that the user experience is a metric defined in part by its point in time. For us to measure the quality of a service, it’s not sufficient to understand what and how, but also when.

Craft virtuously.

P.S., please take a second to ❤ this post and comment.

Remember that design is not art, but a practice.

Michael Schofield

The Beginning of the End-milestone

We make up deadlines, sure; we make up year ends, too.

It’s December 1st, 2019 - the first day of the last month of — let’s be real — an objectively tumultuous year.

I wrote in Metric about “The Temporal Midpoint of the Sprint” after reading Daniel H. Pink’s When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing, which has inspired me to think about the role of milestones in life and in design work. The gist is that any time period — a project deadline, a year, a sprint — is defined by at least three milestones: the beginning, the middle, and the end. Once imagined, we physically react to such milestones, producing serotonin at the beginning because of the optimism and excitement (or, at least, eu-stress) at starting something new, and so on.

In my post, I write about how we can use this knowledge to create project structure to both optimize productivity and team health. What I took for granted even as I was writing about how we ought to create milestones willy-nilly to our benefit was the ephemeral nature of that milestone: we make milestones up.

We make up deadlines, sure; we make up year ends, too.

Even so, we share this sense of being on the downward slope. 2019 is mostly in the rear-view mirror. Our time is running-out on making charitable contributions, tallying-up our resolution scores, daydreaming about the ones we’ll make in thirty days. We all got older. We all did something right. We all did plenty wrong. But the only reason I can write this ho-hum with any reasonable expectation you’ll relate is because we choose — we choose — to adhere to the same calendar.

I think this is liberating. December, by virtue of nothing else other than being the last page on a calendar, connotes a common sensibility - that is, even if a little bittersweet (as are ends of things), trends toward optimism. Maybe things can be different, better. We get to start fresh. All we have to do is wait thirty days.

But when you think of the ephemeral quality of the milestone, doesn’t waiting thirty days seem arbitrary? What’s the hold up? Why wait?

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

Craft virtuously.

Clicking that ❤ in this issue of Stoic Designer is an easy, no-sign-in-required way to signal to the great algorithms in the sky that this writeup is worth a minute of your time. Stoic Designer is also a podcast on every platform. Except for this issue: I’m only awake because I have to catch a flight : ).

Remember that design is not art, but a practice.

Michael Schofield

It's Halloween 🦇 The Veil is Thin


Back in April I introduced Venerating the Grave UX (medium), which is about regularly “ritualizing” negative feedback. The idea is that periodically you make an event out of digging-up negative user feedback and determining whether it has been or how it might be addressed.

For those of you who like to feel extra spooky, I called a collection of purely negative feedback — which, real talk, could be just a filter a on spreadsheet that weeds out the positive and neutral feedback — a “Charnel House.”

Venerating the Grave UX isn’t really about emerging with solutions, but about normalizing your perspective. In January, I wrote

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.

Veneration is humbling, but the goal is optimistic: it’s hard to do consistently thorough user research without being conditioned against taking negative feedback personally. Such a practice thickens the skin. It inoculates you.

So, today, when the veil is thinnest, make some time to look upon the bones of your design work.

Craft spookily,

Clicking that ❤ in this issue of Stoic Designer is an easy, no-sign-in-required way to signal to the great algorithms in the sky that this writeup is worth a minute of your time. Stoic Designer is also a podcast on every platform.

Remember that design is not art, but a practice.

Michael Schofield

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