Visualizing the Blockchain | Aesthetic concepts at Emerson Stone

Designing for Blockchain

What will the much-hyped technology mean for developers, creatives, and UX designers?

Blockchain has arrived — not just in the technological sense, but in the cultural one. We know this because our sixty-something-year-old mothers have started to ask us about it. Also, because it’s popping up in Dilbert comics.

At Emerson Stone, we look forward to the challenges and opportunities this emerging technology presents. As design practitioners, we need to think carefully and critically about designing for blockchain — from visual to digital to UX. Our role is to mediate between businesses and users, helping the former build products and platforms the latter will embrace.

What are some real-world blockchain use cases?

The list is as long as it is diverse. Walmart, working with IBM, is building a private blockchain that will offer the retail giant a “birth-to-death” view of its supply chain, from televisions to mangoes. Everledger, a startup, is using blockchain to track the provenance, clarity, cut, and authenticity of diamonds around the globe. In 2016, Barclays executed its first blockchain-based trade, clearing a transaction that normally requires seven days in just four hours, and according to the World Economic Forum, 80 percent of banks are now developing their own blockchain technologies, for both front- and back-office use.

Developers have proposed using blockchain to secure digital identities and personal data, and Sony recently filed a patent for a blockchain-based education platform. Follow My Vote is building a secure platform for online voting, while Ethereum offers users a way to write and publish “smart contracts,” which automatically execute when prescribed conditions are met.

Other startups are using blockchain to share patients’ electronic medical records, track land ownership in the developing world, and rescue ridesharing from the iron grip of Uber.

Blockchain is, depending on who you ask, either the most promising or the most hyped technology to come along in the last decade. By that token, blockchain will either fundamentally restructure the nature of global commerce, finance, and democracy or end up a dumpster fire of speculation and overvaluation.

The reality, of course, is somewhere in between. Blockchain will absolutely disrupt legacy industries and institutions, even if it doesn’t portend their death altogether.


Sorry, what is blockchain again?

Simply put, blockchain is a technology anyone can use, not a product owned by a single company. Fundamentally, it’s a ledger of transactions — whether of goods, payments, or data — that functions without a central intermediary.¹

When a transaction takes place, it’s verified by every member of the network, a process known as “consensus.” Once verified, it’s time stamped and added to a “block” of other recent transactions, which is then “chained” to the (very long and ever growing) list of transactions that preceded it. In this way, blockchain is transparent, distributed, immutable, and secure.

Is blockchain the same thing as bitcoin?

No, but the confusion is easy to understand. Bitcoin is just one (very famous) example of how blockchain technology can be used. Blockchain made its debut, in 2008, in a white paper by someone² using the pseudonym Satoshi Nakamoto. It offered a clever solution to the “double spend problem” — in short, how do you ensure that a digital currency, which is easy to replicate, can only be spent once? Bitcoin, a cryptocurrency built on blockchain, appeared the following year.

Smart people who spend a lot of time thinking about these things seem to agree that, while bitcoin may be a speculative bubble, blockchain itself has enduring potential to change our world.

So other than bitcoin, what good is blockchain?

The proposed uses of blockchain include real estate, finance, supply chain management, smart contracts, medical records, gun ownership, asset tracking, car sales, wills and inheritances, public records, public benefits, charitable donations, intellectual property, prescription drugs, music streaming, ridesharing, and energy management. The list grows longer every day.

One facet of blockchain we’re paying particularly close attention to is the use of “mining” to replace obnoxious website advertising.

Cryptocurrencies depend on miners, who validate transactions by racing to solve difficult math problems in exchange for a small monetary reward — a process that requires massive computing power. Technologists have proposed that, instead of serving ads to website visitors, companies could instead use a small portion of the visitor’s CPU to mine currency while they’re browsing the site.³ Mining might be a welcome alternative to the endless barrage of digital ads, and an important revenue stream for websites contending with increasingly sophisticated ad-blockers. Users could even choose to “donate” processing power to websites — say, The New York Times — whose mission they support or free content they enjoy.

Is all the blockchain hype justified?

Kind of. Certain firms, particularly those acting as middlemen, will absolutely see their business models challenged; meanwhile, hedge funds, car dealerships, central banks, and title companies may have their hegemony questioned. The Harvard Business Review, for one, has argued that “blockchain will do to banks and law firms what the internet did to media.” That might be true — there’s no shortage of TED talks claiming much the same — but we’re not there yet.

The ability to trace your Fair Trade coffee or alpaca sweater to its source is a neat trick, but it’s not a killer app.

Today, we’re still somewhere high on the Peak of Inflated Expectations. As with any new technology, there will be disappointments — and a few spectacular failures — before blockchain gains traction and widespread acceptance. As futurist Roy Amara has put it, “We tend to overestimate the effect of a technology in the short run and underestimate the effect in the long run.”


What does blockchain mean for design?

In many ways, blockchain presents the same UX challenges as digital design generally. In short, how do you offer a user all the information they need, none they don’t, and create an intuitive experience from start to finish? The particular challenge of blockchain comes from accomplishing this while simultaneously introducing users to a radically new technology.

When using a product built on the blockchain, most users⁴ won’t understand the underlying protocol any more than they understand Hypertext Transfer Protocol (HTTP) when browsing the web.

Fortunately, they don’t need to. Instead, they need to learn to trust a “trustless” technology. They also need to understand the ways in which blockchain-based apps and platforms differ from the digital products they’re accustomed to using.

1. Know your user

As blockchain apps and platforms reach mass adoption, designers need to consider their shifting user base. (Thanks to the recent bitcoin craze, more than a million new users created a cryptocurrency wallet in a single week in December.) Where early adopters and technical users wanted more control and functionality — in essence, to look, and even tinker, under the hood — newcomers and non-technical users will benefit from clear handrails, simple cues and prompts, and few options to go astray.

2. “Design for trust”

IBM’s design team has proposed several UX best-practices that blockchain designers should keep in mind when “designing for trust,” including consistency and constant feedback. Consistency — from clear iconography to jargon-free terminology — allows users “to feel at ease” and “enables adoption and learning,” while “motion and animation, used sparingly, supports understanding of what is happening.” Any data served to the user should be either actionable, trust-building, or educational. As a rule, they write, more feedback is better than less: “The user should always know what is happening, what just happened, and what will happen next.”

3. Account for processing time

Because transactions on blockchain take dramatically longer than in a centralized network — it currently takes about ten minutes to confirm a bitcoin transaction — users need information on their status and progress during this time. We’re accustomed to confirmation times of just milliseconds — when booking an Airbnb, for example, or splitting a check on Venmo — and peer-to-peer transactions simply take longer to process. As designers, we need to get creative in how we help users understand this difference.

4. Call attention to one-way doors

Blockchain transactions are irreversible once they’ve been validated by the network — there’s no tolerance for typos — so designers need to create points of friction for users before they pass through one-way doors. As one IBM designer put it, “There are no take-backs on a blockchain.”


What’s next?

These few design principles are only the beginning. The list of blockchain best-practices will grow as quickly as the uses of the technology itself.

At Emerson Stone, we look forward to playing at the leading edge that design challenge. We believe in creating experiences and products that are empathic, intuitive, and human-centered. We hope to start a conversation with other developers, creatives, and agencies about designing for the digital world — the one we have, and the one that’s coming.


For any questions about the article or thoughts about your own projects, you can reach us on Twitter or at Emerson Stone. Along with client projects, we are constantly exploring new technologies to understand their impact on design and users around the world. If you are interested in working together, please reach out.


[1] Blockchain evangelists, we hear you howling in protest at this gross oversimplification. #sorrywerenotsorry
[2] Or someones.
[3] When done without a user’s permission or knowledge, the practice is known as “cryptojacking,” and some less-than-scrupulous companies are already experimenting it. In September, both Showtime and The Pirate Bay were caught running cryptojacking script on visitors’ browsers.
[4] Like, 99.99 percent of users.

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