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The value of design in the blockchain space

The blockchain space has been developing exponentially in the last few years. It is definitely a hype in our current world: everyone has heard about it and tech managers, innovation directors and other trend followers want to use it and apply it to their projects at any cost.

They are afraid of missing the train.

However, it is not as simple as it sounds. It takes some time to build a train to carry passengers. Firstly, we need to pilot and test if this train works for cargo and then we will be able to transform it to deliver value to passengers.

Even though we all agree upon blockchain has a huge potential to disrupt several industries, are we aware that we cannot apply blockchain for every problem? It is necessary to reflect on the influence of trending topics and buzzwords that lead us to work on a technology that might not be the most appropriate for the project we are trying to develop.

Nowadays, I am exploring the blockchain space from my personal perspective as strategic /service designer and researcher interested in emerging tech, design and behavioral economics aiming to uncover opportunity areas to create transformational value to all stakeholders involved.

For some months I have been evaluating the fit between blockchain and design approaches, tools and skills. I had several talks with designers, designers+developers and developers in the blockchain ecosystem to learn more about their experiences and be able to gain my own conclusions in order to apply my skills in the most fruitful manner in this space.

Moreover, I have read all articles I could find about “Design + Blockchain” that helped me to broaden my scope and frame this space even better. Some of them really inspirational, I must admit!

For me this is just the beginning. I have a long learning journey to go through yet. Anyway, I would like to share my thoughts in case they could be helpful for somebody.

My (In-progress) Conclusions:

Engineering driven ecosystem.

This new world was created from a disruptive vision of a developer to eliminate centralized organizations from the traditional formula of control and intermediation. This vision was brought by the creation of a new technology. The blockchain technology is the origin of this space and as in many other occasions, the potential applications of this tech were not considered initially, the creators recognized a group of technical characteristics that could be interesting to develop aiming to decentralize our current world. If they did not think about applications, neither do so about user needs, behaviors, desires… They probably thought “we do not know how to use it, so first let’s make sense of this and then we can think about the user.

Probably some of them might have wondered: How can we think user centered if we do not know yet the value of the application?

Actually, this was exactly what happened. Blockchain technology matured (even if it is still a toddler trying to walk slowly) due to the involvement of developers in the open community and the development of new protocols, mechanisms and tools that triggered the eruption of small applications with a variety of use cases, from gambling to collectibles.

Then, design as a discipline entered the blockchain space to facilitate the use of these (decentralized) applications. UX, user experience design was/is needed to make use of complex concepts in the digital environment, guiding the user through the experience and eventually increasing the user adoption of blockchain applications.

We are not talking about the past. This is happening right now.

The present status it is not just about individual interventions for specific apps, designers are shaping the future of blockchain apps creating standards. Design systems are being developed to standardize the visual language and interactions within blockchain applications. An example is Web3 Design System, a set of principles and a material library built by designers and developers to create a common language for decentralized apps.

The value of design in the UX dimension is “clearly” understood in the blockchain space, but what about the strategic and systemic dimensions of design?

Adaptation of the design process, Sanders & Stappers (2008)

Designers in blockchain should be capable of thinking about the whole system of the project and apply their specific skills for each component of the system. For example, if I am designing the incentive system, I will need to use “nudges” examples, empathy and journey maps to understand user behaviors and to find the right triggers to invoke action. Otherwise, if I am focusing on monetization of my project, I will need to assemble the value proposition to each stakeholder and the revenue models associated to them.

Consensus mechanisms

A decentralized consensus algorithm is required to achieve an unbiased verification of new transactions. Members of the system give a correct answer to the algorithm and others peers must validate it to let the blockchain to get updated.

“Proof of work” and “proof of stake” are the most famous mechanisms at the moment. Each of them are being used for different use cases. Nevertheless, there is a huge room to imagine new ways to create consensus within blockchain, specially to minimize the power consumption of the current mechanisms. Here, again designers can apply their skills to generate alternatives to the current models depending on the specific application of the technology and connecting it to the incentive system.

Incentives/ penalties.

The exchange of value in blockchain is mediated by tokens. A “physical” representation of digital assets. Tokens are used as traditional currency to transfer value between stakeholders, but also are used as share of a project/ company. When an ICO (Initial Coin Offering) happens, the company sells its tokens to get funding from investors.

In this part of the blockchain there are several questions to consider: Do we need tokens in our blockchain system? Why do we need them? What does it add to our system? among many others.

In most cases, the solutions to these questions are answered by developers who set the basic rules of the system, however, I strongly believe that behavioral science and behavioral economics should be applied in this part of the system. We must understand the dynamics of the users while making decisions and even more important while making irrational decisions to exchange value. Is the reward enough for different stakeholders? Am I giving the right reward/ incentive? How rewards and user adoption are linked? are some general questions to consider while designing an incentive system.

Business model innovation.

In the past decades mainly business administrators were responsible to create business models that answer to What am I offering? Which segment of people will buy my product? How can I earn money? and so on. Nowadays, other professionals with hybrid profiles like strategic designers are using these concepts in practice and are able to define value propositions and revenue models applying their diverging thinking to bring disruptive ideas for the company.

Design tools for blockchain

There are some design tools that can be useful for the blockchain space. These tools are not “the secret formula”, they should be used to reflect on how to tweak or combine them to fit our needs in the decentralized design process:

  • Stakeholder map: Understand and visualize the interactions between actors and the exchange of value. Useful to find intermediaries and central players with excessive power.
  • Personas: Archetypes of users to humanize specific behaviors, needs and desires while interacting with the application.
  • User stories: Analysis and visualization of users’ sequence of actions through the experience considering pain points and key interactions.
  • Service blueprint — front & backstage: Analysis of the user experience and the processes and operational protocols that support every touchpoint of this experience.
  • Board of innovation business design toolkit: Perfect tool to design business models interactively in co-creation sessions with colleagues, clients and stakeholders.
  • Flight Plan design toolkit: The flight plan team created a couple of interested canvases ready to test and play with. It combines mechanism design with UX. Very nice material!
  • Design thinking for Blockchain: Toolkit that guides the process of designing for blockchain step by step adding several tools already mentioned here. Worth using it!

Once I discovered the design tools that could generate value in the blockchain space, I was able to distil the skills needed to answer one of the most relevant question I wondered when I started my initial exploration:

How a strategic/service designer can be valuable in the blockchain space?

System thinker & front-back connector: Ability to connect the nodes of the system and visualize the experience from the user and operations perspective.

Analytical & intuitive: Ability to distill business requirements while create new to the world ideas.

User centered & behavior alchemist: Ability to understand user and stakeholders’ needs and behaviors to design delightful value propositions.

Translator of complexity: Ability to minimize friction between user and digital interfaces.

Co-creation evangelist: Ability to open conversations between professionals from different disciplines to all together generate new opportunity areas.

So, to conclude:

If you are a designer, please join this wave, there are many opportunities for us and our contribution will bring a real impact to the blockchain space.

If you are a developer, talk to designers and collaborate with them, I am sure these synergies will bring many interesting ideas and prototypes on the table.

If you are both, lucky you! Your role is to bridge both worlds and educate professionals to combine engineering and design to build a human centered blockchain space.

Thank you for reading! Let’s chat about the potential of design in the blockchain space :)