Dec 9, 2019 • 6M

Scipio's Villa and the Product Over Time

Stoic Designer
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Bite-sized frequent episodes, Stoic Designer is about applying the practice of stoicism to your design work as a means to benchmark the day, get your head right, and craft virtuously.
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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