A Vision for Crypto—Designing for 25 Million Customers

Bitcoin’s 2017 infamous price run sparked Coinbase into hyper-growth. Competition in the crypto space intensified with the entrance of names like Square, Robinhood, and Binance. For a “startup” with 25 million customers and a world-changing mission, solving Coinbase’s design challenges would be critical for the company many considered to be the face of cryptocurrency.

Scaling Coinbase

Go back to the end of 2017. Bitcoin was up 153% on the month and was knocking on the door of $20,000 per coin for the first time. For as many challenges and confusion as there were around Bitcoin, there was one thing people knew—they wanted in. Coinbase was at the center of it all as the most trusted and easiest way to buy and sell crypto. But while there was demand for hundreds of crypto assets, many of which could be traded with competing services, Coinbase could only offer three.

Crypto was evolving and the company found itself well positioned, but in an awkward adolescent stage. In addition to customers’ demand to add more cryptocurrency assets, the entire crypto space needed trust-building—people were craving authentic news, timely updates, basic education, and understandable resources to learn more about this new phenomenon. For the few that knew about Bitcoin, visions of lambos, Silk Road drugs, money-stealing hacks, and looming government regulation induced worry and skepticism.

For the few that knew about Bitcoin, visions of lambos, Silk Road drugs, money-stealing hacks, and looming government regulation induced worry and skepticism.

Design has the unique ability to change perception in products and experiences, and this opportunity was no different. Before the product could mature with new features and experiences, it was clear that there were a number of large architectural changes that needed to happen.

Coinbase in 2017

Coinbase’s design needed to scale, and facing a hardworking but small team, that needed to happen in phases.

  1. Groundwork for scaling: Adding new features and cryptocurrencies meant we needed to expand the app real estate.
  2. Basic Education: Other than price, what was the difference in cryptocurrencies, and what was going on with them?
  3. Engagement: There’s a lot going in the crypto world—new assets, new features, price movements. How can we show the most relevant content?
  4. Discovery: How do we enable self-exploration of everything the crypto world has to offer?

The Groundwork for Exploring: Crypto List

Going from 3 to 100+ cryptocurrencies meant that discovery would be important. The first phase of that was building out a basic way to view the cryptocurrencies that, at the time, lived solely on the Dashboard—and to do so without reducing our main source of revenue, trading.

One of the design principles I believe crypto needs is simplicity—it’s an overused term to which virtually every crypto company I’ve talked to aspires to achieve. However, very few do. It’s not so much about as figuring out beautiful, elegant ways to fit information together; rather, it’s achieved by being very purposeful about what not to include. Compare the following typical list of coins with Coinbase’s version.

While the information is useful to some (me included on some days!), simplicity is needed to open up the entire space.
Experimenting with core repeatable “asset reps”—what information should we show at what times?

Buy a Schmoople. What’s a Schmoople?

A Schmoople—it’s $19,000 but your friends are all getting in. When it came to Bitcoin and Ethereum and all these new concepts, an expensive “schmoople” could very well have been a thing (even writing this, both “schmoople” and “Ethereum” have red underlines…).

We had prices for crypto, but what else did we have? Why pay an exorbitant amount for something you don’t understand? There was little education, information, and differentiation between assets. This is where Asset Pages came in, and they were the most critical architectural change for scaling Coinbase. But designing them thoughtfully to scale for the next 2 years was a challenge.

Creating Asset Pages

With so many people discussing concepts of future features, we found ourselves running out of product real estate to add assets, education, guidance, and new features. It was clear we needed a sustainable way to expand features other than continuing to pile on new ideas on an unstable foundation.

It was clear we needed a sustainable way to expand features other than continuing to pile on new ideas on an unstable foundation.

To be successful, these “Asset Pages” would balance prioritizing a variety of customers needs (e.g. What’s going on with Bitcoin?) with Coinbase’s own opportunities (e.g. Trading, SEO, etc). We conducted research to better understand what folks found useful and what was missing, and then tested various hypotheses. From 50+ possibilities, we aggregated ideas into a few distinct buckets:

Holding a cross-functional design sprint with the larger team allowed us to brainstorm how different groupings of items would affect the success of future products. While there could be variations of this page depending on customer types (new vs. holder vs advanced, etc.), we needed to start somewhere and ultimately prioritized basic stakes in the ground over spending a large amount of time initially on content. Over the next few quarters, this would be important for the larger team as we released these pages for learnings and experimented with new features.

Crypto moves fast. Real news to stay up to date.

Early on at Coinbase, I remember asking Brian Armstrong what he thought about adding crypto news. He questioned it, wondering if Coinbase ever be the best at news?

The takeaway for me was, well, probably not right away — but we can be the best at being the one-stop shop for crypto. From user research, customers were craving ways to understand what was happening in the crypto world, and they were already trying to get news and updates from a scattering other sources.

The success of News would be showing the right content while building on the trust of our brand. This would build daily active users and provide an engaging framework for us to continue optimizing. We would start with the brands we found balanced trust and useful crypto content, including Forbes, Bloomberg, and Coindesk.

The driving concept for Phase 1 of News on Coinbase

We actually went back and forth a few times on the actual visual news component, since different title lengths, tags, and images would significantly change the way they would be rendered. Once settled, it was important to lay these out clearly for engineering handoff.

Early News Results and Next Steps

The early results of News were successful—not only did customers have a single place to check updates in the crypto world, but it also significantly increased a few key metrics: Daily Actives (customers were coming back more frequently and for longer sessions, Trading Activity (articles amplified the bull and bear market trends), and Engagement (having News meant people were exploring more parts of the app).

There’s much more that can be done with News. Getting trustworthy content was the first step, but getting quality, digestible ways to consume this content is what customers are looking for. Weekly digests and Sportscenter-like video could be examples of these types of consumable pieces of content, though they require significant additional support from an editorial team.

Rethinking the core Buy/Sell experience

As part of scaling, it was important to visit the actual revenue-driving experience: Buying and Selling. Coinbase’s ultimate value to customers is offering the ability to easily trade these cryptocurrencies in a trustworthy way. This “Buy/Sell” experience is the core interface that customers go through, and each incremental increase in conversion significantly affects Coinbase revenue, so it was important to design thoughtfully.

Why does this feel so confusing?
It’s not working, it keeps timing out… 
Do I have to buy a whole coin? 
What am I buying? 
Ok, I bought — what now?

They key here was focusing the decision-making in the flow: how could simplify the experience by either eliminating decisions or assuming them?

Asset Selection: Since customers could buy and sell now directly from Asset Pages, we could eliminate the asset selection altogether.

USD/BTC Purchase Amount: We found most people think about buying in US dollars, while they think about selling in crypto amounts, thus we could assume a single display for each experience.

Deposit to”: As for depositing, this was mostly legacy—why wouldn’t your assets appear in your account? We eliminated this altogether.

Payment Method: While it might initially make sense to be able to switch payment methods, most customers only had a single method, while those with multiple were using them primarily to avoid limits. With the context of an additional internal project (Withdrawal Based Limits), we could eliminate this choice altogether by assuming the highest limit or default payment method (and then allowing customers to change it at confirmation).

Summary/Confirmation: We could simplify this experience by pushing confirmation details to a screen that appeared after pressing “Preview Purchase”.

A Preview of Discovery

The original challenge was creating ways to introduce new valuable features and assets. As is often the case, it’s much easier to add than to subtract.

We’ve done a lot. We’ve gone from offering 3 assets to paving the road for hundreds. We’ve added News sources providing daily articles that will empower even richer content. We have unique feature offerings like the ability to earn crypto other than buying it. For us the next challenge is focusing— how do we create a relevant experience?

How do we create a relevant experience?

Are all the same users interested in the same content? How do we prioritize the most valuable things first for you?

What is a valuable experience?

Buy Bitcoin and call it a day? Advanced trading? Earning greater returns? Education? Opinions? We have a wide array of customers, each on their own crypto journeys.

What is important?

What’s important on a daily basis? Hourly? Monthly? For you? For sharing?

Next Steps and the Importance of Design

In a way, Coinbase started out as a budget hotel. It got the job done. We put in a lot of work, added in a few nice things, and cleaned up the place—one could say we’re a decent 3-star hotel!

But what’s the 5-star hotel experience for Coinbase? Fast forwarding, I see us creating something that exceeds expectations, doesn’t just check you in but welcomes you, and offers plenty of different offerings to best enjoy your stay. We are deepening our connections to the crypto world.

Design is critical for leading to crypto’s mass adoption. The work here is not important because we’re hitting some metric, it’s not important because it is a “cool feature” to build. What I see us doing is amplifying how people understand why crypto is important, how you can learn about it, and how to get involved, which ultimately what’s really important — what it can be used for to better ourselves and those around us.

Design is critical for leading to crypto’s mass adoption.

Coinbase is a special place and has a very gifted group of folks that are shaping the future. I’m incredibly grateful to be a part of that story.

Working on a crypto project? Don’t be shy, I’m always interested in connecting. We’re all on this adventure together :)