Blockchain UX: Challenges, Principles and Heuristics
The blockchain technology won the interest of many individuals and corporations due to its technological capabilities and scalability for various use cases. This led towards the disruption of traditional internet / intranet, business models alongside services such as the way we conduct business, transactions and managing information in effective and secure ways. These use cases clearly communicate a message for systems and experience designers to get equipped with relevant skills and to keep polishing them as the technology grows.
BLOCKCHAIN AND EVOLUTION
Following the evolution brought by this rapid introduction, the blockchain technology nowadays consists of three types being the ‘public’, ‘private’ and ‘federated / consorted’. In a nutshell these blockchains share similar functionalities. In terms of differences, pretty much they rely on the use cases, permission levels and privacy. The image below highlights the similarities and differences between the three blockchain types.
But the evolution doesn’t stop here! Innovators like IBM created the IBM Blockchain Platform, aiming to accelerate the creation of “built for business” global blockchain network across industries (sources: IBM). As well there is the Blockchain-as-a-Service (BaaS), a product by Microsoft running on Azure, and until very recently, Huawei launched their own BaaS and currently planning on building a Blockchain-ready Smartphone.
The use cases are varied and innovators are constantly finding novel ways to utilize and leverage from this technology. Even better, IBM published few release notes and whitepapers about use cases which are available on their website. Below is an incomplete list of various use case examples where the blockchain can (or will) fit in sooner or later.
IMPLICATIONS AND A WAVE OF CHALLENGES
The blockchain brought a wave of opportunities alongside interesting challenges combined with a new spectrum of pain points. This situation isn’t any different from the time when the Internet was introduced. The internet paved ways gradually, brought opportunities for everybody and left a positive impact after embracing user-centered design (UCD) principles. We designers have a pivotal part to play for delivering right solutions. Prior to that, it is important to become acquainted with the technology, its value, use cases, strengths and limitations as clients will depend on us for expert advice and guidance.
VALUE AND BENEFITS: The scalability and capabilities of the blockchain is disrupting classical (centralized) business models alongside traditional internet termed as the ‘internet of information’. This led the shift towards the concept of the ‘internet of value (IoV)’ as resulted from the opportunities brought by this technology as indicated below:
The blockchain within the business context brings several advantages such as time saving over work processes, minimizing costs, risk reduction and increase in trust. By learning these values and benefits, we designers will have the ability to foresee how this technology can reshape our clients’ businesses notwithstanding the knowledge and confidence we need to guide and proposing right solutions fitting their needs. However for that to happen, the business must have a network of some kind in order to ensure a solid foundation of a good blockchain use case.
EMPOWERMENT AND CONTROL : It is often said that ‘with great power comes great responsibility’. This statement is heavily applicable when it comes to this technology. The blockchain restores control and ownership of information back to its rightful owner thus eliminating dependencies on central authorities and third parties. This degree of control and empowerment (refer to locus of control) may sound good, however users are fully responsible for avoiding risks of having own data lost or stolen particularly when it comes to certain crypto-coin wallets because once a password (private-key) is lost…both wallet and coins will be permanently lost and can’t be recovered (unless backups were made). This calls for measures relating with effective password and sensitive data management. Lastly, records within the blockchain are effectively immutable and intolerant to typo errors. In other words, what is done within the block cannot be undone. Therefore, a degree of friction within the design is useful in such situations as the blockchain ecosystem is full of one-way actions with no points of return.
TRANSPERENCY AND FEEDBACK: The blockchain is transparent because records are stored in a logical flow (provenance) which cannot be reversed or deleted (immutable). Through the ‘proof-of-work’ protocol, the quality and integrity of the data is retained while eliminating the possibility of temperament or exploitation. Despite this advantage the attribute of transparency is undermined by two aspects being:
· 1 — Influential (psychology): Some might still be negatively influenced by the idea of a ‘distributed ledger technology (DLT)’ particularly when classified data is involved. To a certain extent, the media hype and the Bitcoin volatility also fortified skepticism. One must be able to understand that Bitcoin is a digital currency operating on the blockchain; however the blockchain technology has other use cases besides transactions. That’s a reason why systems designers should be able to educate and enlighten own clients. On a positive note, people are learning to accept this technology however others still need time to learn before expressing trust, welcoming it, and becomes salient within own daily activities.
· 2 — Technology (tangible): The blockchain brought new processes equipped with jargon for instance Gas, Gwei, Hash, public key and smart contracts just to name a few. For that matter, the system may communicate statuses containing advance technical terms, hashes and long alpha-numeric codes. As well one current limitation behind this technology relates to ‘latency’ / ‘processing time’ which is only prominent in public blockchains. Typically a block confirmation can take from 10 minutes up to some hours; therefore it is obvious that users may assume that something didn’t work which could lead to panic especially if transactions are involved. Therefore it is good to provide access to help documentation / FAQs to guide the end user while ensuring that the system indicate progresses and processes in a transparent way to maximize user trust and to communicate peace of mind.
In the long run I believe that it all comes down in respecting basic human needs which Abraham Maslow (1943) highlighted in his ‘hierarchy of needs’ (a motivational theory in psychology). As designers we must ensure that specific needs are addressed and considered before proposing and delivering final design solutions. In our context, the needs we must prioritize on are:
Additionally we must respect the way users interpret things or better, their mental models as this will help us designers in making intelligent decisions during the iterative designs stages which are fortified through feedback gathering (i.e. through user research, contextual inquiries, etc.). Mental Models are indeed an important concept in human-computer interaction (Nielsen, 2010) as they provide an overarching interpretation and understanding of how something works by basing on previous encounters with things bearing similar traits. Consequently this will help us in proposing a design that is comprehensible (Norman, 1988) and empathic to users by identifying their context, emotions, goals and motivations (Quesenbery, 2012).
HEURISTICS PRINCIPLES FOR BETTER UX
Heuristics and design principles are validated rules that system designers should abide with in order to deliver useful solutions with compelling experiences tailored for users. Experts like Ben Shneiderman (1986), Jacob Nielsen (1995), and Bruce Tognazzini (2014) played a pivotal role in establishing heuristic principles and design rules which are revered by many. However many writers / bloggers have the tendency to keep emphasizing on the importance of design consistency, system feedback and trust. These three principles are imperative to the design process but certainly not enough! There are other principles which should not be excluded. The next sections contain a re-elaboration of the commonly discussed principles alongside additional heuristic and design principles which shouldn’t be avoided.
· System feedback and guidance: The system should tell users what is going on within a reasonable amount of time in order to give them the chance in responding appropriately to changing conditions. The blockchain is relatively new to many and comes with a spectrum of unique functions and processes. Therefore, it is obvious that many users may NOT realize what is happening or about to happen while executing an action. Users should always know what is happening, what just happened, and what will happen next (Fleming, 2017). Additionally the system may communicate novel terms not limited to long alpha-numeric codes (e.g. hashes, transaction id’s, cryptographic keys, etc.) therefore, it is ideal to combine these complex terms with jargon-free explanations. Clear and concise wording is important and that becomes more effective when presented with relevant visual cues to deliver a visual interpretation of the situation.
· Control over irreversible actions and errors: Users often choose functions by accident without knowing what might happen next. For that matter, systems should provide necessary means for recovery and to come back to a previous state (e.g. back, close, abort, undo…) thus inducing a sense of safety, autonomy and most importantly control over the situation (refer to locus of control). The blockchain is packed with irreversible actions which can be frustrating for users. For instance mistypes, once recorded within the blockchain cannot be altered nor deleted. Therefore it is ideal to include a degree of ‘friction’ during various processes to maximize user awareness (i.e. what they are about to submit) before confirming the next steps. For instance before a new block submission, display an overlay window summarizing the information about to be registered, combined with functions to go back and conducting final revision and editing. Consequently display confirmation dialogs with accurate messages, warnings and call-to-action buttons so users will be given the freedom of choice before deciding the next steps otherwise users will end up facing catastrophic outcomes.
· Learnability and productivity: Since the blockchain is both new to some and complex in its utilization, it can be expected that the learning curve will be critical until users gain significant experience overtime. System learnability and usability tend to work hand in hand. In order to facilitate learning, the ‘frequency of use’ should be identified by determining how often users will be utilizing the blockchain and the functions / features aimed for regular usage. If users are supposed to engage in frequent actions, ensure that accelerators are present to enhance interactivity and call-to-action in a timely manner thus minimizing hindrances undermining performance and productivity.
· Match system design with real world: Systems should contain a language bundled with solid metaphors that users can understand thus allowing them to form an accurate sense about the system’s capabilities and limitations while simultaneously grasping the meaning behind specific functionalities after relating with real-life experiences. The blockchain is rich with unique functionalities and system-oriented terms hard to comprehend. Therefore it is wise to demystify the system by presenting wording, phrases and concepts in a logical order so users can find it easier to make sense about the system while reducing frustration.
· Consistency and standards: This rule is about maintaining the same visual language across the entire application; but it doesn’t stop here! The presentation of tiny structures like iconography, symbols, scrollbars, etc. must be strictly perceptible and manageable so to prevent users spending much time figuring out their meaning and functionalities. Consequently, their locations should also be consistent across the entire platform. Lastly, functionalities should correspond with the communicated visual definition of the icon, symbol and call-to-action button. From a behavioral perspective, changes requiring users to unlearn habits resulting from an alteration of a longstanding function will lead to massive frustrations. For example, what would happen if we suddenly change the functionality of the ESC and ENTER keys? Rephrasing one of IBM’s statements, “consistency across products and customer experience is essential for building trust with users”. Therefore consistency isn’t just about mere design language but also about functions, their locations, terminologies, and lastly about transferrable behaviors and experiences from other applications.
· Aesthetics: Minimalist visual aesthetics is pivotal for a technology rich with system-oriented terminologies and functionalities as it expresses appeal and clarity. Visual elements, if wisely implemented can establish a two-way empathy (user to system, system to user) which in return maximizes user experience, learnability, productivity (efficiency) and satisfaction. As well it helps users to correlate, categorizing or interpreting content and functions easily. The Gestalt Principles in Design is a good starting point to obtain relevant information combined with solid theoretical and psychological foundations affecting the design quality.
· Help and documentation: Just like with any other system, helping documentation and FAQs are always handy for users while utilizing a system such as the blockchain especially for the first time. Therefore it is ideal to include an easily accessible ‘help’ link and tooltips within the system so users will be able to translate complex terminologies, the functionalities and their processes the blockchain has introduced. In return this will maximize learnability (as stated before) and the users’ confidence levels.
If you are a designer looking to pave ways into the Blockchain technology and applications, it is never late to start. From my personal experience I would suggest to kick start your learning by getting acquainted with the three core components the technology is composed of being: distributed ledger technology (DLT), decentralized (or better, distributed) networks, and public-key cryptography. For that matter, I compiled a list of training and certification providers for Blockchain which you can check. To conclude, I hope you find this article useful enough. This entry was compiled through a combination of my knowledge, professional experience besides synthesizing external sources provided below:
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