Blockchain Designer Profile: Jonny Howle

Designer at uPort

Sarah Baker Mills
Jan 6, 2018 · 6 min read

How did you get involved in blockchain?

My journey into blockchain began in mid 2015. I was studying in the UK at Hyper Island pursuing a Masters in Digital Experience Design. I was trying to decide on a topic on which to focus my upcoming thesis work. I can’t remember the exact article I came across, but in it I learned about a number of exciting, non-currency use cases for blockchain including music distribution and voting systems. This immediately piqued my interest and I had an intuition that this new tech would fundamentally change how we interact online.

From there I fell down the proverbial rabbit hole and ended up writing my thesis on how designers could help existing businesses react to emerging technologies, specifically blockchain.

What are you working on now?

Today I work on uPort. uPort is aiming to solve one of the most pervasive and immediate problems in the blockchain space, identity. In the blockchain world, you, as human being, are typically synonymous with public/private key pair. However, new key pairs can be generated at anytime. This is great for anonymity, but not great for facilitating all of the blockchain use cases we often dream about.

For most real world uses, people need a persistent identity to which a reputation and history can be attached. The blockchain opens up the opportunity to leverage that identity in far more interesting and seamless ways than what is available now. But first, we need to create those persistent identities, and that is what uPort aims to do.

What do you enjoy about designing in the blockchain space?

A number of things interest me in this space. Foremost, is the opportunity to examine and reshape some of the more fundamental aspects of life. Identity is one such aspect. It is not often that designers get tasked with reimaging what identity is and how it might be used. What is privacy? What is ownership? What is control? All these things are suddenly relevant questions.

Beyond this, there is a certain culture right now in the blockchain industry and even more specifically in the Ethereum world. It is a culture that sounds a lot like the culture of the early internet pioneers which I wasn’t old enough to experience. There is a level excitement and idealism that makes motivating yourself to solve problems and work hard much easier.

What are some of the challenges you face when designing for users of decentralized apps?

This is a topic I have been actively developing a lot of thoughts around. I’ll keep my points relatively brief here but hope to publish much more in the future.

The first challenge when designing in this space is the use of language and metaphor. Coins, tokens, wallets, seed phrases, gas, gwei, smart contracts, public addresses, block confirmations: this is all new language that new users must confront and learn to be able to interact confidently with these applications. Famously, the internet had some of these problems with things like the “@” symbol, “email”, URL, not to mention the introduction of usernames and passwords to the general public. It is yet to be seen how much of the current blockchain language can be abstracted away from end users and how much of it will become part of the general Web 3.0 lexicon.

Secondly is time. The previous years of the internet have greatly increased the speed of life. Sites load fast. Transactions, interactions, and confirmations are near instant. Downloads often happen instantaneously. Blockchain, at least in its current state, takes a step backwards in this regard. Block times and confirmations introduce a non-negligible element of time into many user experiences that we as designers must reckon with in ways we previously did not have to.

Third: volatility. As with above, the volatility might have much to do with the current state of the tech and we will see how large of a factor it is in the next years as the industry matures. However, right now, much of what happens in this world is in incredible flux. Not only can transaction and confirmation times swing wildly, but also costs. Designers must be able to communicate this to end users to give them the confidence they need to interact with a system. In simple eCommerce use cases, goods priced in cryptocurrency can move minute to minute and even within a single browsing experience.

Fourth is a shift in trust. Many times blockchains are hailed as a solution to the “trust problem” of the internet. I think this a slight misrepresentation. The trust problem hasn’t been solved, so much as it has been moved. Users now need to place an increased amount of trust in the system, or the underlying code. There is a culture of skepticism on the internet, especially these days with the ever looming spectre of “fake news” and “hacking”. For instance, getting a users to trust that the image that they are seeing has not been “photoshopped” because its hash has been checked against what has been posted to the blockchain is non-trivial. This issue becomes more exacerbated as blockchain makes its way into use cases with higher stakes such as verifying identities as border crossing and authenticating customs documents.

Finally is the shift in personal responsibility. This has to do with Key Management is probably the most immediate and visible UX problem in the space at the moment. The amount of stories I see about people losing their private keys, and thus access to their money is astounding. Additionally, explaining what current proper key management is to friends and family often results in a complete shutdown interest. Given how often people forget their passwords or usernames, many people simply don’t want to burden themselves with the additional anxiety of potentially losing a seed phrase that will cost them thousands of dollars.

What advice do you have for a designer new to blockchain?

I think it is important for new designers to dive into the technology and understand what this technology means for the world that is different from other technologies. Many of the tools and frameworks you use to solve problems won’t change, but there are things about working in blockchain that will be important to you that might not be as important to a designer working in VR or AI. The inverse is also true of course.

I would also say, walk the walk. That is to say, use cryptocurrency and use dapps as much as you can even though the ecosystem is still new and using these things can actually be more burdensome than traditional systems and services.

Finally, I would say stay focused on why the technology exists. It doesn’t exist to make money for people on Coinbase. Many of the greatest benefits that blockchain has to offer apply to demographics in the most disadvantaged communities. Those without identities, those without banks, those without a trustworthy government. As cumbersome as some of today’s blockchain solutions might be, they are often small prices to pay for those who desire financial and social freedom.

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DISCLAIMER: The views expressed by the author above do not necessarily represent the views of ConsenSys AG. ConsenSys is a decentralized community with ConsenSys Media being a platform for members to freely express their diverse ideas and perspectives. To learn more about ConsenSys and Ethereum,please visit our website.

Sarah Baker Mills

Written by

Head of Design @ConsenSys, previously @IBMBlockchain and @TheAtlantic/@AMStrategy.