Design Thinking for Blockchains

A method for exploring decentralization opportunities

Earlier this year, our team from Project Interactions and Graph Commons developed a new method for exploring decentralization opportunities by combining elements of design thinking, network science, and crypto economics. We utilized this method in design thinking for blockchains workshops, where participants with little to no technical background were able to partake in designing new protocols. In this post, we share our learnings and a draft version of the Decentralization Method Sheet.

Why does design thinking matter for blockchains?

Short answer: We need a creative and collaborative approach to make protocol design a more inclusive activity.

The current rules and methods for acquiring and using cryptocurrencies, no matter how well-intentioned the larger motivation is for their existence, are baked with the biases of their creators, and favor people like them. Part of the hype of blockchain is its decentralization and democratization potential. However, without a diverse set of people designing with it and developing it, exclusion will be built into the base of many blockchain applications.
 — Carissa Carter, Director of Teaching + Learning at Stanford d.School

When it comes to blockchains & tokenization, the majority of intellectual and creative energy so far had been concentrated on building infrastructures for future applications — protocols. Protocol development is a fairly technical activity and currently dominated by specialists like engineers, technologists, and researchers. Since the early utilities are primarily financial, we also witness a great deal of participation from finance professionals and investors.

Considering blockchains will have a significant impact on all walks of life, this is a very limited and exclusive crowd. It represents a sliver of people who will be implicated by decentralization. We believe protocol design should be a multi-disciplinary activity and include a variety of inputs in the conception stage to prevent creator biases baked in platforms. People should be able to participate and get creative even if they are not experts in cryptography, finance, or software development.

Thus, the primary role of the designer in a decentralizing world should be to facilitate a creative and inclusive process for system design — otherwise we will end up with beautifully designed applications that serve the benefit of a very small crowd.

So, how might we lower the barrier to entry and enable diversity in shaping the future of decentralized systems before it’s too late?

Enter design thinking.

The workshop

We structured the workshop as a one-day deep dive. Getting participants to be generative with what they learn is instrumental, otherwise, we would repeat yet another intro to blockchains lecture. And while we don’t want things to get too technical, we still need people to understand the foundational concepts in order to have a fruitful session.

In the workshop, we expect people to learn something new and be generative with what they learn in the same day. This is no easy task! As such, our agenda ambitiously combines theory and practice in 3 stages:

  1. Understand — A short session on core blockchain ideas through step-by-step visual explanations and real-world examples.
  2. Create — In groups, dive into a business domain and identify decentralization opportunities through design thinking tools.
  3. Discuss — Present group work, collect feedback, and discuss with the larger group.

So far, we had participants from a variety of creative and business backgrounds. They had varying levels of knowledge on decentralization and blockchains. There was no admission criteria except for a genuine desire to learn and get hands dirty. While a small subset had more defined agendas for their business domains, most of the participants were fairly new to the area.

The method

We created a Decentralization Method Sheet to guide people through exploring decentralization opportunities for a domain: starting with the ecosystem of people and relationships, pain points originating from mediation and ways to disintermediate centralized power mechanisms.

We approach decentralization as a people-first systems design exercise. Our purpose is not to engineer a solution process for coming up with “blockchain for __________”. To avoid such solutionism, we ground the activity in empathy: needs, motivations, and challenges. This is where the method sheet comes into play.

Below is a quick outline of the steps in the method sheet along with photos from the previous sessions. Please remember that this is work in progress — we aim to improve this with further input and feedback.

1- Draw the Ecosystem

Illustrate the network of people and interactions to identify the trust loops — the transactional relationships and mechanisms mediated by trusted 3rd parties.

2. Map Journeys

Pick a trust loop and articulate the transaction. Then, walk in the shoes of key actors and articulate their needs, priorities, and challenges to discover moments of trust — how it is ensured and what could go wrong.

3- Frame Opportunities

Crystallize trust loopholes (mistakes & misuses) and frame them as opportunities for disintermediating centralized power mechanisms / trust brokers.

4- Design the Protocol

Outline the new mechanism: What/who is disintermediated? What is the verifiable unit-record? How is atomicity accomplished? What are the incentives to participate?

5- Brainstorm Applications & Implications

What does your protocol enable? Envision new services, utilities, use cases, and implications. Be bold! It’s a lot of fun to speculate about what could be built upon your protocol.

Decentralization Method Sheet

What’s next

So far, we received an overwhelmingly positive response to this effort. While there is a lot of room for improvement, the method sheet proved to be a useful guide for exploring opportunities for decentralization.

Moving forward, we intend to do more toward lowering the barrier to participate: grow our community, include more voices, and improve the method.

If you like our intent, here are some things you can do to support:


Thanks to Ann Odell for her kind words about one of our sessions and New Lab for the great venue for the workshops!