Getting Up to Speed on Blockchain: Design Elements

Aug 13, 2018 · 5 min read

A deep dive into four big design features with XLNT’s Matt Condon

Anyone who’s read An Artist’s Guide to the Blockchain will be familiar with Matt Condon, the piece’s co-author and a good friend of the CoLab who is also working to build a more human-centered decentralized web. Matt is the lead behind XLNT, a project focused on human-centered self-sovereignty, and helps maintain OpenZeppelin, the most popular repository of Solidity smart contracts. Matt is a unique voice in the blockchain community — his writing appeals to both designers and developers, and he’s able to translate complex topics into simple, human terms.

Matt recently stopped by the SF CoLab office to give an overview talk on blockchain. While the full length talk is worth watching in its entirety, here are a few of our favorite highlights. Below are four key design elements of blockchain that provide designers and developers a myriad of opportunities to explore and build with:


“…This is what we call trustless, because you don’t have to trust the other people in the network in order to have the whole network operate correctly. Everyone’s kind of looking out for their own. And because of that because of this kind of checks and balances…you have a database that’s not owned by any one person, it’s owned by the superset of everyone in the network and the structure for doing this is called the blockchain.” (jump)

One of the big ideas that makes blockchain technology so interesting is that its very structure creates economic incentives for its users — helping everyone involved to work together, whether or not they actually know or trust each other. The possibilities here are nearly endless: What kinds of activities would benefit from systems that have built-in checks and balances governing user behavior? How might we design apps and networks that help people work together more efficiently, because trust is no longer an issue? This is one of the most complex, but exciting, features designers will need to explore.

Owning Your Identity

“If you think about it because no one else has this number, that number is your identity…The idea being that you don’t have to go to the government and ask who this person is. You can simply ask them to say, ‘Hey are you this person that has this secret number?’…That’s really interesting, especially from a sort of philosophical perspective, not requiring a third party to prove who you are… We all carry driver’s licenses, I.D. cards, passports. Theoretically we may not need that type of identification in the future, if you can just prove who you are using cryptography.” (jump)

Although the issue of how to keep your private keys safe is still a major challenge that designers are working on, blockchain brings up the intriguing idea of self-sovereign identity — that users could be in charge of verifying their own identity. What would a world look like where the traditional managers of identity — banks, social security, and the DMV, for example — are no longer necessary? How might we connect digital identity to the physical world, and what devices will become the new “ID cards” that work across the different systems and tools people need to access? How do we account for people who are unable to manage their own identity, such as due to age (being too young/old), disability, or illness?

Immutability and Censorship Resistance

“Once you have changed something, it stays there. It can’t be changed again unless your code allows that to be changed. And even then the historical state is kept…Even in the case of voting on something you can roll back and say, ‘How many votes did this have right before it closed?’ It gives you censorship resistance. These changes that you’re making to the database are run by 10,000 computers around the world. That makes it really hard for someone, potentially even the government, to attack it and stop that code from running. That’s really, really cool.” (jump)

Immutability is a double-edged sword: it means that a bug in the code stays there forever — it also means that censorship is nearly impossible. There is no recounting of hanging chads, for example, when the votes are recorded and backed up across thousands of distributed devices. This puts even more pressure on designers and developers to get it right the first time when building these important tools. How might we ensure the high-stakes tools we build live up to these standards? UI and UX will play an important role in ensuring users are well-prepared and equipped with the knowledge they need—what new best practices will emerge?

Digital Scarcity

“Digital scarcity is the idea of: write some code that says there will only be 10 of these things, whether they be tokens or digital cats on the Internet. There’s only 10 of them and because 10,000 computers around the world are double checking that on every block, you can be reasonably certain that there will only be 10 of them. And that’s really really interesting because before you could not have digital scarcity… That opens up a lot of possibilities, especially for art. The ability for digital art to be valued on par with physical art is kind of like market-changing. It is a paradigm shift in how people view digital art.” (jump)

And finally, this is the most exciting feature for artists and other creatives: digital scarcity. Similar to the way in which family heirlooms are verified as being authentic (or not) on Antiques Roadshow, digital assets can also be verified now. While bootlegged copies aren’t likely to go away anytime soon (we’re still human, after all), it will be interesting to see how these markets evolve. How will valuation change with provable digital scarcity? How might we design new tools and markets for users to buy, sell, trade, view, and interact with their digital estates?

Interested in learning more? Watch Matt’s full talk here. You can also find Matt on Twitter or learn more about him on his website. Thanks, Matt!


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