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Research is not Enough

While backend research moves at an aggressive clip, UX remains an aching blindspot in the Ethereum ecosystem. Accelerated application development and experimentation is needed to move the ball forward.

A friend recommended Mastery by Robert Greene to me recently. The book reviews the lives of persons who built an intuition for finding new levels of human innovation.

The Wright brothers story stood out as particularly relevant in the context of web3 development today. In the early 1900’s there were many teams better funded with more academic experts competing to successfully launch a flying machine. As humble bicycle engineers, the brothers didn’t seem to stand a chance. So how did they succeed?

While most teams focused on engineering specs (the backend) Wilbur and Orville found their edge by utilizing live experimentation to inform subtle adjustments that greatly increased their ability to control the machine in the air. These subtle design adjustments are not solved abstractly. They emerge through usage. Web3 is no different.

Today, the Ethereum community spends the majority of its resources on abstract design. This is epic, necessary, and the people leading the way are doing a damn good job, but there is a chicken and an egg to the scalability problem, and a blind spot clearly exists on the UX side of development.

Despite being the strongest network posed to provide a decentralized global settlement layer, Ethereum will soon face real competition for developer attraction. Platforms launching to fill this foothold and bring on web2 developers will find a competitive edge in their application development potential. Excluding financial reward, two primary factors determine the ability for a developer to build on a protocol 1) scalability and 2) onboarding activation energy. Higher development potential makes for faster iterations on design, and every iteration provides a chance to develop the killer app that ignites mass adoption.

Protocol Scalability

Leading protocols like Ethereum and Bitcoin need higher transaction throughput to support application performance similar to the web today. The bulk of development in the Ethereum community focuses on researching scalable architecture to augment or update the protocol through layer one and layer two solutions. Ecosystem development programs injected millions of dollars to subsidize development of the designs proposed by long form research found in public forums (ethresear.ch…) and academic consortiums (Perun, Pisa…).

solutions today

Layer One Solutions: Involve upgrading the Ethereum protocol to a PoS based, sharded blockchain. Community development programs have poured millions of dollars into 10 teams building the new client design. While there are proposals for an intermediate Eth 1.X the roadmap for Eth 2.0 completion estimates range from 2–5 years.

Layer Two Solutions: Consist of architecture that takes transactions off chain. These solutions include everything plasma, sidechains, state channels, and zk protocols. While much research continues on generalized plasma and state channels, layer two payment channels and plasma chains are available on mainnet today.

Despite being available, very few applications are utilizing the capability of layer two solutions. Most often they are used in house by the team who pioneered them. A pitfall of the open source philosophy driving Ethereum’s development results in many performing redundant work. Applications on Ethereum with consistent users are few and far between. This is partially a reflection of Ethereum’s application development potential today.

Frankly, it sucks.

Onboarding Activation Energy

The other aspect critical to application development potential has to do with developer and user onboarding. On the internet today, developers know how to build valuable applications for end users who trust the system. Blockchain throws a massive wrench into these narratives. Devs must engage in a new field of software development and users need to learn the flow of a foreign financial management system.

solutions today

AFAIK there are few platforms that offer simple and easy onboarding into the Ethereum app development space. Cryptozombies? Blockgeeks? These are great educational resources, but they still bring developers up to speed through a foreign workflow. Not to mention the difficulty of applying more advanced features to apps like payment channels and universal login.

Liberating both parties from these burdens by packaging the technology in intuitive interfaces would lower the learning curve and accelerate development cycles. UX design principles have been around. New design patterns continue to emerge. More usable solutions are on their way.

The Stakes

I spoke with a friend involved in a variety of decentralized communities recently who views Ethereum as a great MVP, but not more than this. Her sentiment is that new networks will overtake Ethereum due to better application development potential, a stronger governance structure, more PhDs, more experienced tech entrepreneurs, and more finances.

She is absolutely right.

There will be many high powered chains that come in to eat Ethereum’s lunch (both new decentralized networks and massive corporations with incumbent developer armies).

Despite the horsepower backing these projects, I suspect Ethereum will prove difficult to overtake. While the governance may be ineffective, the degree of decentralization (second only* to Bitcoin) allows for true bazar type innovation. Ethereum’s secret sauce is its large, intrinsically motivated, and growing developer community. There is no $4 billion dollar war chest. These people have been hacking in their spare time. Ethereum is THE application layer protocol most aligned with an open source, decentralized philosophy.**

While I appreciate the sentiment of blockchain agnosticism, there will be “winners” and “losers” in this field, similar to the way there were winners and losers in the race to flight. I want to point at the blindspot in Ethereum’s development path today and propose that a higher rate of shipping should result in more detailed adjustments… just like the Wright brothers.

Scalable solutions exist. Why aren’t they being integrated?***

*Feel free to include chains more decentralized than Ethereum in comments.

**Surely I’ll receive some pushback on this.

***Mainly due to difficult implementation specs.

To note: I am deeply involved in the Ethereum community and have a vested interest in seeing the project succeed. Currently building a product to help accelerate development at the application layer.

Also, if you’re involved in layer 2 development would love your input in this survey.

All thoughts stem from patterns witnessed through public forums and personal conversation. Many thanks to those concerned with understanding the full state of development today. Keep contributing to the puzzle.



Elijah McClain, George Floyd, Eric Garner, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Michael Brown, Oscar Grant, Atatiana Jefferson, Tamir Rice, Bettie Jones, Botham Jean

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