Plato and the user experience

The wise teacher wrote in Ecclesiastes that there’s nothing new under the sun. Today, a popular topic of conversation involves the term experience—user experience (UX), customer experience (CX), employee experience (EX), and, regrettably, human experience (HX).

UX, CX, and EX help leaders focus their decision-making on what benefits the user, the customer, or the employee. UX focuses on how the user interacts with a product, while EX focuses on the employee journey and their interaction with your company.

Gallup depicts EX like this.

Companies should, in fact, focus on the experience of its stakeholders, whether users, customers, or employees. You believe that too, if you’ve ever had to use technology or an organizational process that clearly did not have you in mind when it was designed.

Not only that, there’s financial incentive for companies to focus on users. Companies that get CX right outperform their peers’ revenue by 11%, and those that get EX right outperform the S&P 500 by 121%, according to Accenture research.

However, many organizational leaders believe they’re doing something new-fangled by focusing on the experience of the user. Yet as the teacher said, there is nothing new under the sun. What has been said has been said before, and a hundred years hence it will be rediscovered and thought new again.

In Plato’s Republic — a book written more than 2,000 years ago — Socrates argued that the user’s experience is superior to the maker’s experience, much like we would say UX designers (the makers) ought to design with the user’s experience in mind today.

Near the end of the book, Socrates argued with a young man named Glaucon about how to best know a thing. He said that painters merely imitate horsemen, for example, as they paint; they don’t actually know how the reins are supposed to go.

But does the painter know the right form of the bit and reins? Nay, hardly even the workers in brass and leather who make them; only the horseman who knows how to use them—he knows their right form.

Socrates went on to explain that “the excellence or beauty or truth of every structure, animate or inanimate, and of every action of man, is relative to the use for which nature or the artist has intended them.”

He concluded by saying something like you’d read today in Fast Company or a Deloitte report:

The user of them must have the greatest experience of them, and he must indicate to the maker the good or bad qualities which develop themselves in use; for example, the flute-player will tell the flute-maker which of his flutes is satisfactory to the performer; he will tell him how he ought to make them, and the other will attend to this instructions?

. . .

The instrument is the same, but about the excellence or badness of it the maker will only attain to a correct belief; and this he will gain from him who knows, by talking to him and being compelled to hear what he has to say, whereas the user will have knowledge?

Plato, Republic, Book X, in The Great Books of the Western World, vol. 7, ed. Mortimer Adler (Chicago: Encyclopædia Britannica, 1955), 430–431.

In short, Socrates essentially argues for taking surveys from users to inform design, since they know best the experience from using the product.

I love working with technology vendors because of the hope and optimism they have about our progressive future. As a student of the humanities, I always smile when I hear about something “new” and “unique” because, chances are, it’s been said before.