What’s so different about decentralized design?

Decentralized Design
Mar 4 · 6 min read

Written by Lola Oyelayo-Pearson, Andy Bennett and Ryan Cordell, co-organisers of the Decentralized Design MeetUp community in London.

Lola Oyelayo-Pearson in conversation with Georgia Rakusen of ConsenSys

The first question you may ask is what is decentralized design? We’ve defined it as design using decentralized technologies, primarily blockchain. Blockchain technology enables us to consider a world where individuals are empowered to take full ownership of how they interact and transact with a service. A popular example is cryptocurrencies where there is no controlling central bank or authorising body.

Whilst cryptocurrencies are the first popular use-case for blockchain, the technology is gearing up to offer us an alternative to current web services (commonly refered to as web 2.0), sometimes described as web 3.0.

Web 3.0 is an opportunity to enable users to have more control and agency in how they interact with service providers. However, to realise the potential, we have to consider how we design appropriately so that people are able to act in their own interests.

When we became designers within blockchain infrastructure organisations, we found ourselves swimming against the tide. We were trying to learn about a hugely complex technological area without a playbook or peers. Creating the Decentralized Design community is our way of building the community we want to learn from and grow with.

What we aim to do with Decentralized Design

Decentralized Design is targeted at designers, content designers, researchers, product managers and developers working on blockchain and decentralized technologies. This community aims to support the socialisation of a new set of design practices, methods and approaches that are needed in this space.

We exist to further three key aims:

  • Uncover design challenges that uniquely exist or are made more acute within a decentralized service environment
  • Grow the community of practice for decentralized design, making it easier to find like-minded collaborators and colleagues
  • Distribute our learning to a global audienceenabling independent workers and teams alike to access our talks and outputs

At the moment, we are a London-based community, but we welcome anyone willing to organise and share from other parts of the world. The more we meet and cultivate, the more powerful the community can be.

We held our first event on Wednesday 13th February 2019, during London Blockchain Week. Graciously hosted by Pivotal and supported by RMG Digital, we held an intimate conversation with Georgia Rakusen, Design Research Lead at ConsenSys. We asked Georgia to share with us her views on what was so different about decentralized design?

N.B. The below is not a direct transcript of the event but a summary of the conversation between Georgia and Lola.


Q: Other than the complexity of the domain itself, do you think there are significant differences between designing for blockchain vs other technologies?

Blockchain is a really immature space. It’s not just cryptocurrencies. In many cases we’re talking about building environments as powerful as the cloud. There are no users yet, not in a mass consumer way. This makes it harder to apply classic design research approaches or testing.

Despite that, there is a huge amount of work to do helping the engineers and startups in this space define the problems they are solving, and interrogate their assumptions about user’s future behaviour.

What we think of as very technical work and logic will affect the behaviour of people, so we don’t want to wait for the space to mature before we start applying design approaches, as it might be too late to properly influence this technology.

We can avoid the situation we see with AI and Machine Learning where the technology is as biased as humans. For too long, the technologists there focused on the mechanics of the technology and did not consider the human implications.

Hopefully, by participating in the early development of blockchain, we can help it realise its potential to the benefit of humans rather than our detriment.

Q: What kind of designer do you think could thrive in this space?

First lets separate the kind of designer we need versus the kind of designer who would thrive. We need people who are interested in the design of systems, economies and social science. People who can be creative even with ambiguity and uncertainty. We need researchers who are willing to invent, evolve and adapt their toolkit to this space. We need service designers who can help map the hugely complex environment and show how we might resolve the multi-participant challenges we see in places like on-boarding.

Onboarding is particularly challenging as users need to first acquire the relevant cryptocurrencies to transact on a blockchain. This often means using a number of different providers (e.g. exchanges, wallets) before you can actually start to use a service.

However, because this is a very technical space, it can at times feel hostile to design. So the kind of designer who would thrive would need to have a strong technical voice. Not because they can code, but because they can stand their ground in a technical environment. We need designers who are willing to question what is being done and ensure that the engineers are focused on the why.

Because of the scale of the technical challenge that faces engineers wanting blockchain to become a performant, mass technology, it can be very easy to lose the human lens. We need designers who want to keep teams grounded in the human perspective. Both to better understand how to serve humans best, but also to look for and mitigate against negative unintended consequences.

Ultimately, the right designers are skeptical optimists. They don’t care about blockchain, they care about the human problems it can solve.

Q: What advice would you give to people who are really put off by the hype, hustlers, cowboys and speculators, gathering around cryptocurrencies?

We have to accept that tokenisation is a really unfamiliar and unusual way of transacting. It’s a barrier to the adoption of blockchain because in our usual web habits today, we transact with our personal data and people don’t realise this cost.

Cryptocurrencies are an important part of the mix because they enable the business models that will make this space sustainable. Trading in cryptocurrencies has been a popular business model in and of itself (although things are changing). However cryptocurrencies are far from the only things blockchain will offer, just take a look at the examples on State of the dApps (decentralized apps).

Ultimately, we need to separate the cryptocurrency and blockchain development communities in some way. Trading in currency is a very different use-case to transacting services with real utility. What we have seen is that one has negatively affected the other, and hopefully with the hype for cryptocurrencies getting quieter, the real work on building new services can continue.

Q: What excites you about this technology and its potential?

We have gotten into very negative habits with our personal data. When it’s harmless we’re getting spammed and surprised by how someone we only met once is being recommended to us on social media. Where social media has positive impact in sharing voices that would otherwise be unheard, we’ve seen governments that are able to shut down access as a form of control. We’re also seeing significant harm with undermining our democracy with false information, companies hoarding our data to criminal levels and the absence of choice. Even if it wasn’t intentional, as users, we have lost power in the way we interact with the web.

Blockchain has the potential to change that, but there are no guarantees. I’d love to see a design only start-up who start by making a service without worrying about the underlying blockchain challenges initially. A team that starts with the user problems (because we can really talk about those) and is willing to plug in the technology later.

Either way, I’m excited about blockchain because it could be the way forward and I want to be here doing my best to help that happen.

Q: What advice would you give to designers who are interested and would like to start working in this space?

Despite what it looks like, you really don’t have to be a blockchain expert to design in this space. Don’t waste all your time reading whitepapers (sometimes they are just jargon). I started out by dabbling in cryptocurrencies, but took time to go to meetups and interest groups to meet others in this space and it grew from there. I don’t need to see all the use-cases today to believe in the potential of this technology. I’d advise others to think about the problems we want to solve with today’s web technologies, and use that inspiration to explore decentralized design.


You can find Georgia on Twitter @G_Rak.

Decentralized Design

Exploring the world of design in the blockchain era.

Decentralized Design

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Pondering the evolution of design in the blockchain era | Global | Empowered | Citizens

Decentralized Design

Exploring the world of design in the blockchain era.

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