Please, Insert Human

Why blockchains (and other emerging tech) need human-centered design.

Image Credit: IDEO CoLab

One of my favorite things to do when meeting fellow crypto-enthusiasts is hearing how they keep their tokens safe. In hushed tones, they tell me stories about cutting up handwritten copies of their private key and mailing sections to friends and family around the country, or — get this — traveling to a remote mountain somewhere and burying their hardware wallets. Calling Bitcoin digital gold has felt like pure irony in more ways than one; here we are talking about one of the biggest computational breakthroughs in modern human civilization, yet storing it like it’s 1849 all over again.

“Is Yukon prospecting, or stashing his private key? Is there a difference?” (Image Credit: Yukon Cornelius/Rankin/Bass)

For something of such technological sophistication, why does the experience of it still feel so primitive? My sleek, aluminum-clad Ledger (a cryptocurrency wallet), for instance, is as state-of-the-art as this kind of hardware gets, yet I balked at having to write down 24 random words on a piece of paper, and being expected to keep it somewhere dry and safe (and to find it again when I need it — yikes).

Like Packet Radio Vans that drove around Silicon Valley broadcasting the beginnings of what was to become the Internet, and the pre-money inefficiencies of merchant bartering goods to trade, these practices feel like part of an embryonic, awkward transition as we grapple with how exactly to use these fancy new tools we’ve invented.

Here, human-centered design has a major part to play.

As the price of bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies hit dizzying new heights, the future of a world powered by blockchains looms closer than ever. As these new protocols and tools enter our financial, legal, and identity systems, we’ll move from asking: “What are blockchains good for?” to “How will using blockchains change the way we do [X]?”

We’ll move from asking: “What are blockchains good for?” to “How will using blockchains change the way we do [X]?”

As designers and entrepreneurs at IDEO CoLab, that is the kind of question we rally around every day. How might design help humanize these technologies as they become part of our everyday vernacular and experiences?

In our opinion, blockchains will not just revolutionize the world’s technical infrastructure, but also how we navigate it. Gazing into our crystal ball has left us preoccupied with musings on some potential future scenarios. Here are three things that will change:

1. Your Wallet Becomes Your Identity

Image Credit: IDEO CoLab

Forget usernames or passwords, your wallet becomes the way you sign in to the products and services in the dApp (decentralized app) world. To me, Metamask is one of the best examples of a wallet/browser extension today, and you can see how that can easily lead to seamless browse-and-buy experiences across multiple retail vendors. Squint a little harder — and you could imagine shopping with lightning-quick currency conversions or dynamic micro-transactions. The cherry on top? You’re doing this in a protected, secure, and (if you want) anonymous way.

Herein lies a design challenge: how might we re-imagine the consumer experience in decentralized digital world? A quick laundry list of gnarly design problems for the brave:

  • A better and foolproof private key experience for wallets
  • Sending and confirming transactions on the blockchain
  • Crypto-currency conversions between tokens
  • Creating, connecting, and organizing accounts

2. Scarcity Becomes the New Commodity

We are all special snowflakes (Image Credit: Andy Warhol)

The beauty of the Internet was that it enabled anyone access to a global audience. In the 1990s, this meant that with just a bit of HTML tinkering on Geocities and the friendly squeal of a dial-up modem, I could create and publish just about anything to the world.

This meant easy creation for all — and also infinite copying and distribution — which challenged establishments like the music industry (and weak efforts like DRM). The blockchain adds an interesting layer: you can now also make “limited-edition” things or spawn collectible bug-eyed kitties. Now, the blockchain enables anyone to limit that distribution, meaning that control and replication of digital content is put back into the hands of its original creators. The possibilities are endless… or finite by design.

3. MicroTransactions Become the Norm

Lightning-fast payment channels. Image Credit: IDEO CoLab

How many ways can you measure (and thus price) demand? Dynamic, lightning-quick micropayments based on units of attention (e.g. paying for how much time you’ve spent reading an article) or network congestion (i.e. popularity of site) could be coming your way this summer.

As a consumer, it fills me with dread — I don’t want to be reminded that I’m paying-per-use or per minute or per scroll. Research has also shown it leads to decision fatigue (read Nick Szabo’s “The Mental Accounting Barrier to Micropayments”).

We think this could well be a juicy design challenge to get into: UX/UI design is a craft about balancing attention and distraction, helping to abstract or reveal bits of information, where and when they become relevant.

Human-centered design could help make micropayments, a more efficient pricing mechanism in itself, not be mindbendingly painful for the user.

As the ecosystem evolves, new behaviors will emerge.

Already, there are emerging signs of new behaviors that the distributed web will surface.

Some of the traditional web conventions we know today will go away. You will no longer need usernames or passwords as arbitrary identifiers. Your wallet, in a way, will become your identity when you log into a dApp. Transactions across currencies and borders can happen — lightning-fast. These technical advances are pointing in the right direction, but inching along with much friction, and we believe human-centered design can take us further, faster. Some products, like Metamask, Civic, and Chain are already leading the way.

Where will the future take us? It’s fuzzy, we can squint and hazard a guess, but I reckon we’ll get there quicker if we focus on using better design to get it human-friendly, first.


Interested in getting involved? We offer two fellowship sprints a year, and we’re looking for multidisciplinary engineers, designers and business-minded folks who want to help build new prototypes with emerging technology. Sign for our mailing list or follow us on Twitter for the latest updates.