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The parallels between UX design and Philosophy
Nadia Mackay

The parallels between UX design and Philosophy

“Philosophy begins in wonder” Plato said.

As ancient humans, we wondered about the things we saw and experienced, and questioned why the world is the way it is. Philosophy began as an attempt to understand the world without relying on religious or mythical ideas and to provide explanations to satisfy our capacity for rational thought.

There have been many schools of philosophical thought for life’s basic questions and their ideas often directly oppose each other. But philosophy is the active process of considering the fundamental questions about the universe and our place in it rather than providing definitive answers.

In trying to understand the human experience, it’s not hard to find parallels of how we draw from these concepts in UX design. We try to find the best user experience in the same way that philosophers question how we should live our lives and how is it that we can understand our world.

The Socratic Method

A method commonly used when trying to understand a problem in UX is the 5 Why’s. Sakichi Toyada created this technique for the Toyota Production System to ask ‘why’ 5 times whenever they encounter a problem to find the root cause. This helps uncover insights to make an informed decision and is usually used at the beginning of a design process.

Socrates (470-399 BCE) was considered the wisest of all, yet he wrote nothing. He didn’t have any theories but persistently asked questions that interested him. The passing citizens of Athens would hear a process called the elenchus, a gentle interrogation of people who held strong views to see if they were consistent, accurate, clear and justified.

He took the standpoint of someone who knew nothing, asked questions (sometimes playing devil’s advocate), exposed contradictions in arguments and found gaps in knowledge to uncover insights. He regularly admitted that he was ignorant and was delighted to be proved wrong. This was known as the Socratic method.

We can learn that stimulating critical thinking allows us to really understand ideas and assumptions. There’s more to every problem than the face value. So don’t just assume you know how to solve a problem, take a minute to consider and think through what the actual problem is. And for some humble Socrates pie, admit ignorance and have delight in being wrong.

The Socratic Method ≡ The 5 why’s

Plato’s Cave

In trying to find empathy and understanding our users, we try to uncover what they strongly believe the user experience should be (or know to believe). This belief is based on previous experiences, their environment and who they are. This is known as the mental model. An explanation of how someone thinks something works in the real world. For example, a heart icon means I can add something to my favourites because I’ve seen it in other places, but a heart icon can also mean I like something on social media. This context helps inform the approach you take with your design.

The student of Socrates (the one who wrote down his teachings in the form of dialogues) was Plato (427-347 BCE). Each dialogue focused on an attempt to define an important concept. In his dialogue Republic, the famous ‘Allegory of the Cave’ illustrates the levels of reality.

Imagine a cave in which some people are trapped, never seeing anything but light cast on the cave wall. As things pass the cave, their shadows are projected on the wall. These people only know the reality of the shadows and believe that’s exactly the form it takes. One brave fellow makes it out of the cave to see the world in light and colour, and finally seeing the detail of things that made up the shadows. On returning to the cave telling his friends about his discovery, they shun him for blasphemy.

Empathy and understanding are really needed to put yourself in someone else’s shoes. However, without knowing the context of who you are designing for, you might be failing the person who will actually use it. For better or worse, you need to allow for their reality and help guide them with learned experiences.

Plato’s Cave ≡ User’s Mental Model

Plato’s Meta-ethics

There are many design principles we follow, whether it’s basic like hierarchy and colour or complex like Jakob’s law. For my example, I would like to focus on the themes of aesthetics, functionality and usability. A design needs to solve a problem, be easy to use and nice to look at. Those are the general premises for a good design.

After Socrates was condemned to death for corrupting the youth, Plato went on to found the Academy (from which the word ‘academic’ comes from). Advocate for virtue ethics, Plato gave us meta-ethics. It is the general grounds for principles of ethical values which grows out of his Theory of Forms. We touched on this previously with the ‘shadows’ from the Allegory of the Cave.

Forms are the essence of each object that explains what it is, for example, an apple is an ordinary form. But others are more abstract because their ideas govern reality. These forms are Beauty, Truth and Good. Beauty is a special form as it is one of our finest experiences (there is a whole branch of philosophy that focuses on aesthetics). Truth is the second high-value form, and Ibn Rushd (1126-98) also known as Averroes argued that the “truth cannot contradict truth”. And lastly, the supreme form is Good. The Form of Good gives purpose to all of the others. It embodies the nature of moral goodness and motivates it, which explains the existence of things. And linking this to Aristotle’s theological view, everything exists for some purpose.

But taking into account the Form of Good, we need to consider designing good. At its core, design needs to be functional, but you don’t want your user to just say ‘It works’. Your design needs to delight and embody our fine experience of Beauty. It needs to be considered and informed from Truth in order to be usable. But each of the themes needs to stem from being good at what it does first and in order to achieve its purpose.

Form of Beauty, Truth & Good ≡ Design’s Aesthetics, Usability & Functionality.

Systematic Philosophy

Most of us follow a framework, whether it’s Lean UX or Agile, but a more commonly used one is Design Thinking. It is a 5-step framework used to systematically solve problems in a creative and innovative way. Design Thinking aims to understand the user, challenge assumptions and redefine problems. This allows you to identify alternative strategies and solutions for your problem. The method includes empathising, defining, ideating, prototyping and testing.

Aristotle (384-322 BCE), the father of deductive reasoning, is considered to be the philosopher of common sense. Much of his philosophy was in response and sometimes against his teacher Plato. He sought to preserve the phenomena and looked for explanations that tended to support how things appeared to be.

Any attempt to create a philosophical method that provides structure or framework to reality or a reason to explain all questions and problems related to human life is considered systematic philosophy.

Common methods used include the process of being skeptical about one’s true beliefs (methodic doubt), providing several arguments to support the solution, and presenting the solution and arguments for criticism by other philosophers to help judge (dialectic).

Frameworks help give us structure in order to do things efficiently. I believe you will get to a point where it is inherent, and you’ll start using your own methods in how to deductively solve the problem at hand. But it is a great starting point to engage in a creative way to problem solve.

Systematic Philosophy ≡ Design Thinking

Dialectic ≡ Design Reviews

Syllogistic arguments

A tool used in Agile is a description of a software feature from an end-user perspective - a simplified description of requirement. A user story describes who the user is, what they want and why. Structured as:

  • As a (role).
  • I want to (action).
  • So that (benefit).

Aristotle first described an argument based on deductive reasoning called syllogistic arguments. Syllogism is a three-part logical argument in which two premises (major and minor) are combined to arrive at a conclusion. As long as the premises are true and the syllogism is structured correctly, the conclusion will be true. For example:

  • All men are mortal.
  • Socrates is man.
  • Therefore, Socrates is mortal.

Syllogism can teach us that regardless of what the conclusion is, it needs to focus on the truth of the premises. So rather than just describing ‘as a user’, consider who the user is and what the actual job-to-be done is. A user story is a tool and should be used to provide better context. By using the truth, it will help you find empathy in the conclusion.

Syllogism ≡ User story

Measuring happiness

A design rule we follow in UX is the Pareto Principle. It says 80% of the outcomes result from 20% of all causes for a given event. The goal of the rule is to identify what are the inputs that are the most productive and make it a priority. Simply, make the things people use the most often, the easiest to find, to satisfy the majority of people.

Jumping to modern philosophy, John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) was described as a liberal thinker and had a utilitarian philosophy in pursuit of the good life. His work On Liberty is a libertarian text on the defence of the freedom of the individual. Utilitarianism is the belief that all actions can be judged by their results. The actions that cause the most happiness are the best actions. Mill defined happiness as a result of maximising pleasure and minimising pain. But this leaves questions unanswered like how do we measure happiness?

Mill thought it was unreasonable to ask people to stop and calculate the positive and negative effects of every action they make. As moral agents, we develop moral rules to help us make rule-based judgements later on. For the complicated scenarios, the full calculation of the greatest happiness for the most amount of people is still the appropriate guiding principle.

As products are evolving, you might find popular features appearing on your app that might not necessarily make sense for them to be there. For example, the introduction of stories to popular platforms like WhatsApp, Linkedln and Youtube which originally stemmed from Snapchat. Learned behaviours will allow people to grasp these new features, but sometimes we tend to forget the main use for a product. I believe there is still a place for these features, so long as you always consider the 80/20 principle in your hierarchy for your IA (Information Architecture) and layouts.

Mill on measuring happiness ≡ The 80/20 rule

Food for thought

As this isn’t a definitive list of parallels, there are plenty more thoughts out there. Perhaps you could draw your own parallels from the examples below.

David Hume (1711-76) argued that the self is simply a bundle of impressions about the world – one that only appears to have a fixed identity. Could this link to user personas?

Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) said that there is a priori knowledge which is known independently of experience, and a posteriori knowledge which is gained through experience. Could this link to users inherent and learnt behaviours with interfaces?

Hedonism is the idea that pleasure is what determines wellbeing. Whatever promotes pleasure and avoids pain or suffering is considered morally good. Epicureanism defines happiness as a state of tranquillity that is reached by being free of pain and anxiety. Could this link to usability?

I hope I’ve sparked your interest in philosophy and made you consider how the thoughts of great philosophers apply to our everyday lives. And as I have my stack of books here to reference all the philosophies, I still have a lot to learn. I would love to hear about any other parallels you’ve found.