Designing for New Technology

When I started at Colu about a year and a half ago, it was was a new startup taking its first steps having just made it past the very important seed round. Since the company was just starting out the team was quite small, there were only 12 of us, mostly developers. Before Colu, I had always worked in companies that had established design studio, so this was the first time I was working as a solo designer.

Without other designers around to discuss the latest brand trends, interesting apps, and my never-ending debate over the best fonts, I found myself spending many hours talking to the developers. Since I couldn’t seem to get them to take a stand on the virtues of Helvetica vs. Gotham (and I tried many times), we ended up talking about every aspect of our technology, from every possible angle. What was a bit frustrating at first quickly became fascinating, and a very real advantage. By developing a strong understanding of the technology I was able to provide better, deeper, and more meaningful design solutions. The more I knew about the technology, the better the user experience became.

The conversations with the developers were particularly important because Colu occupied a space that was, and still is undergoing rapid and ongoing development. Colu’s goal was to make the technology behind Bitcoin, blockchain, accessible to everyone. Since blockchain was, and still is, a new technology there was challenging work to be done, but not in the sense many people would expect. Up until this point most blockchain companies were aimed at developers and the average website would usually have texts filled with industry jargon, and some variation of the same image — dots floating in space with lines connecting them (see the somewhat uninspiring picture below). The situation with blockchain made me think of the beginning of online storage and how the term ‘cloud‘ was created to help people understand an amorphous concept of an unseen system storing all of their data.

The experience of thinking through what it means to design for a new technology helped me to realize that the primary challenge and goal as a product designer is to communicate the company’s technology and business goals to the user in a way that can take something inherently new, complicated, and often abstract, and make it feel human, connected, and accessible. What follow are a few important things to keep in mind.

Know the problem areas
If you know your weakness you can find new and creative ways to address the problems, and often the solutions are easier than you might expect. For example when we first designed our login for the Colu dashboard we knew it would take time (more than the average) to create a user account since it was generating a private key on the blockchain. Rather than just having the user wait, and hope they wouldn’t get frustrated, we came up with two creative solutions. We made a special, more fun progress bar that was shaped like a maze to keep our user entertained. We also made sure we were updating the user on what’s happening behind the scenes and how close the account is to being ready. By creating the login this way we kept users from feeling frustrated or, even worse, feeling like something went wrong and giving up on the process.

Crosswise solutions
In 1980’s the educational psychologist John Sweller developed the ‘cognitive overload’. He claimed that learning happens best under conditions that are aligned with human cognitive architecture. People have a limited amount of mental effort that can be used to learn new things. By splitting a task or using former knowledge a person will be able to learn something new and store it in his long term memory. This means that if someone has to process too much new information he or she will get lost and have a feeling of discomfort.
Because of this, it’s important for designers to create interfaces that don’t present too much new information. This is particularly true for complex products such as apps, where consistency is a key element to keeping users feeling engaged and comfortable. 
When apple or google come up with a new design style, they make sure to accompany the release with a design style guide. They do this in part because they recognize that the different apps that are featured in their products often mimic some of the android/ios experience in order to make their users feel comfortable.

Creating beautiful consistency comes from a deep understanding of the product, the technology and the user’s experience. Only by knowing the technology can you really understand its weak spots, and instead of creating a quick fix for every obstacle you encounter, you can find a solution that fits the entire app and create a smooth and consistent experience.

Communicating Innovation
It’s always exciting when a new technology emerges, but it also presents a unique set of challenges. If you want to succeed, It is important that your users understand your technology, its advantages, and how it’s unique in the market.
For example, the Colu app lets people transfer money peer-to-peer, something that is, of course not new. But the difference between Colu and Paypal, or any other banking app, is that our technology allows users to transfer money without any reliance on third parties. That means no one but you is holding your money, and therefore there are no fees to be charged. This is a crucial part of the product and significant for users so it was important we made sure the experience in the app will reflects it properly. When we made the transaction screen, we highlighted this by showing that the transaction is composed of two people and the money is transferred between them and them only.

Technology as a source of inspiration
Technology can be a collaborative partner in creating new solutions, and you if really understand it and are open to it, it can take you to places that would have been hard to imagine. Just think of smartphones. The interfaces as we know them today probably wouldn’t exist if the multi-touch wasn’t invented. Before multi-touch existed there wasn’t a canvas on which you could paint. In this sense, the two pieces can’t really be separated.

The next few years will be especially interesting as we witness a revolution of meaningful technologies and advancements. Wearables, biometric sensors, autonomous driving, and virtual reality are just some of the new technologies arising, and we can only imagine the effect they will have on how we design user experience.

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