A couple of weeks ago I started work at Chainspace. Chainspace is platform for decentralised services that allows other developers to build solutions on top. Think of it as a way of making it possible for any developer to use a blockchain. It’s one of a new cohort of infrastructure offerings, looking to normalise the use of blockchain in areas other than cryptocurrencies.
Having spent much of my career being technology agnostic and focused on the bigger picture as I saw it, its a wild departure for me to commit to working on essentially a single technology solution. For me there are two immutable factors that made the difference.
1. It’s the future yo.
The research behind Chainspace is second-to-none and comes from my alumnus UCL, headed up by the insanely smart George Danezis. George is another person I’m very excited to work with (see point 2 below) alongside the researchers in the team Shehar Bano, Mustafa-al-Bassam, and Alberto Sonnino. It’s not just a Blockchain, it’s a bloody good one backed with outstanding thinking on how to address issues like scalability, capacity and speed. That’s about as technical and marketing as I’ll get about that in this post . If you want more info, go look up the whitepapers. They’re very good.
2. Reunited with my tribe.
I believe in the power of cohesive teams. I’ve experienced what happens when you work with people who bring out the best in you and vice versa. It’s a drug and one I’m addicted to. I’ve spent the last 18months working primarily solo and it didn’t take that much to tempt me back to the heady highs of working with Dave Hrycyszyn, Penny Andrews, Andy Bennett and Ramsey Khoury. These individuals and others in the team are more than just colleagues, they’re friends I get to work with and that means a huge amount to me.
I know I’m fortunate to have achieved co-worker nirvana a couple of times now, even more so to be able to recreate it at Chainspace.
About the blockchain thing
The criticisms of Blockchain centre mainly on the argument that it is a solution in search of a problem. Its also surrounded by hyperbole of the next big thing and the bloodlust of speculators and hustlers. So let me quickly debunk theories of hype here (Decentralised Social) and here (Chainspace powered EU Data & Privacy) and here (Blockchain for Homeless ID). There are also wonderfully esoteric (but actually probably accurate future scenarios and use-cases) ideas that are worth exploring like Liberal Radicalism, a system for funding public goods and Augur, the prediction market protocol.
Blockchain is a very good solution to a number of problems. But like many things before it, if you are obsessed with the technology you may be missing the wood for the trees.
I’ve naturally gravitated towards this field because I truly believe that decentralisation is in the vanguard of online tech. We are living in an age of peak centralisation of services across the web. And some may argue that’s just the way the cookie crumbled. However, for civic, commercial and personal interests, we need to re-consider how we enable digital services at scale, whilst preserving transparency, agency and accountability. These are not actually technology problems, they’re societal problems that we can’t ignore.
Tim Berners Lee himself has said that he wishes the internet had lived up to the decentralised ideals it started out with, but these ideals were not baked in to the way the internet worked so it was possible for a few actors to gain control. Decentralisation is an opportunity to claw back some control. Now most of us will still need the internet to access any decentralised services, so this is not some Silicon Valley-esque sentiment (or maybe it is!). What is novel and exciting is that decentralisation can support the need for individuals and businesses to take ownership of how we access, benefit from and protect our own content.
But its not just going to happen by magic.
Decentralised solutions need design.
They need user experience research and planning, they need product strategy, they need governance (even more critical in decentralised environments), they need to be shaped around the needs and behaviours of real people. I am super interested in how we do this. Not least because UX is primarily a maternal discipline. We nurture users, anticipate their needs, guide their actions and help them when they trip up. All these intentions and actions imply a centre, they imply ownership and control.
What happens when there is no centre to nurture the experience? What happens when you have to plan the UX of a solution that is continuously designed and evolved by its users?
The Open source community have been dealing with these challenges for years, but I think to really grasp fully what needs to be done in this context, we will need to evolve a new practice I’m calling Decentralised Design
(Caveat yes I’m creating new things that sound a lot like things we already have. Please read on so I can give you some rationale. Also, I reserve the right to change my mind on this later!)
Decentralised design is a lot like the traditional interface-focused UX practice. There is a lot of work to do around proposition, the introduction of good design patterns for common tasks (e.g. on-boarding, identity, authentication, wallets etc) and importantly language (so much work for great UX writers to get involved in). But there are key differences between traditional design and decentralised design. As a starter, some of the bigger issues for me are as follows:
Designing for positive consequences: Because decentralised solutions are in the main open source, once they’re out, people will access it and build on it. You can’t always control the final expression, but you do need to design for consequences and outcomes.
Scenario: Some of the emerging use-cases for decentralisation are important but usually in underfunded and under-served areas e.g. homelessness. Rather than just assuming a paternalistic ‘saviour complex’ approach to designing these, we need to ensure we consider the agency of the individuals involved. What happens if they lose access? Can we make assumptions about their devices or if they even have any? How do we make these solutions sustainable?
In these contexts, we have to be extremely careful that we do not accidentally create marginalisation, simply because we thought we knew best and were excited to tickle our own fancy on doing good.
Designing for adoption: For many years to come, education will be a big part of decentralised services. This means that prospective users have to be willing to adopt new thinking, and this isn’t as easy as just telling people its good! Even the infamous and well trodden Reddit community for Explain it to me like I’m 5 has struggled to easily conceptualise blockchain. As I said earlier, understanding the technology shouldn’t be a requirement, but understanding the value actually is.
Scenario: Many businesses and civic organisations (charities, governments etc.) have developed their technology practices around the current online and digital trends. Any transition for a large organisation or service provider is unbelievably painful. Imagine you’re a local council running a critical service. If you make a decision to actually adopt this new technology, the overhead on educating your staff, let alone millions of constituents will be daunting. We have to make this easier.
Designing for behaviour change: This is a tricky one. Essentially, 20+ years of the web being primarily centralised has taught us all to behave in a particular way, specifically in a passive way. Decentralised services need more active behaviours to become the norm.
Scenario: Healthcare is a possible domain for decentralised services to thrive. Giving individuals more flexibility with their medical information and servicing choices. However, many of us may have instant concerns, do we trust ourselves with such important information? How do help people understand health needs in a transactional way? How do we teach people to behave differently without making them feel like they’re stupid or behind the curve? How do we ensure people feel safe?
On the face of it, because these are not interface level considerations, they feel like a mix between Service Design and UX Strategy. And maybe that combination of disciplines covers where we’ll end up. However, the context of a decentralised environment creates a tougher learning curve for designers. As well as needing to build a certain level of domain knowledge around a particular decentralised service (sometimes known as Decentralised Apps or ƉApps), designers will have to do the hard work on behalf of users and really get to grips understand why a decentralised approach is better than a classic centralised one.
There are many many new and complex use-cases for decentralised services (I’ll start talking in detail about these in future posts), but the fundamental challenge I come back to as I start learning about the potential, is that we cannot allow these use-cases to evolve as a consequence of technological possibilities.
I don’t underestimate the inherent complexity in defining new and appropriate domain models for this environment. I think it’s a tough ask, but a necessary one.
I believe we have to create a group of designers and developers that is armed with tools to design specifically for the decentralised environment. This is a responsibility, because the things that become popular and normal in the next couple of years will become the fundamental premises that affect the next generation of services.
The call is out to get more designers
There are a number of use-cases where the decentralised community is asking for design’s help to do a better job. One of the biggest problems in cryptocurrencies at the moment is that people are losing their private keys or having them stolen. Why? You could say it’s carelessness on behalf of the user. I think it’s because wallets were an incidental feature of owning crypto currency. They haven’t been through the rigour of being planned as a critical product proposition. And that lack of design, shows itself in the resulting user behaviours.
Design help is needed to look at identity, on-boarding, fundamentals of transactions and tokens and many many more. This podcast from ZeroKnowledge.fm shares some great thoughts from a UX UnConference held in Toronto earlier this year.
This challenge is what I’m doing at Chainspace.
I’m joining 2-years into the academic work, a few months into the speculative product development, one month into becoming an actual business (woohoo) and a month or so before we close our seed round.
Its a classic start-up environment. We have no real job titles right now, we’re just making this thing. We want to create the best developer experience we can for those who will build on top of it. We want to solve the inherent challenges in performance and availability of decentralised services, in a way that removes those issues from the discussions around blockchain. We want Chainspace to gracefully, elegantly and without ego, do the best job it can for the fields where we already have strong use cases like civic services, finance, healthcare, data privacy and security.
But is this really going to be about user needs?
So this is where it will get interesting. To demonstrate that we can add value, every part of the work we do needs to have a high level of rigour. I’m not talking about peer reviews and all that (although I do expect some academic papers to fall out of this). I mean rigour in that we need confidence that in a real, decentralised, peer-to-peer world, people will actually use what we’ve built. Because once it’s out, we won’t control it.
Are our UX tools fit for the job? I’m not sure. I’m going to have to blend, hack and adjust my toolkit. I’m excited about incorporating things I’ve not done before (like using Design Fiction). There are very very few designers publicly sharing in this space, although we’re tracking every blog post, podcast, article and video we can find on the subject.
I am not phased. I will fail, and I commit to sharing all of the learnings. I also expect to succeed, both in terms of finding good usable solutions, but also in building a better conversation and practice of design in decentralised services. Putting my neck on the line, I’ve already submitted pitches to two conferences, a UX one and a Blockchain one. No guarantees I’ll get into either, but both are this year, so we have to get this learning train moving.
Decentralised Design needs designers AND developers
This is about doing the groundwork to create a community that has a shared interest in solving key challenges in this space. Naturally, as a designer my home is in the design field. However I have always believed in effective collaborations with developers. And for this endeavour, I’m making extra effort to learn high geek (for understanding whitepapers you see), thus, I’d like to welcome the developer community too.
We have to collaborate in order to build the level of knowledge needed within the design community. Equally, I think its important that we acknowledge how the technological advances in the field will continue to inform and transform our design approaches. There are many cases where a mutual learning journey adds to the greater good, this is definitely one where you can get biblical with iron sharpening iron (or steel sharpens steel….FYI this is not an open call for religious discourse).
If you’ve read this far, thank you! I’d love to hear your thoughts, it takes a community to build a community and all that jazz.