Blockchain has the tech industry buzzing. Speculation that it will disrupt long-standing products and services are rampant. To have that kind of impact on the everyday lives of people, blockchain needs to overcome its usability problem. User experience design will ultimately have a greater impact on the widespread adoption of blockchain than the technology itself.
User experience (UX) design is the process of creating products that provide meaningful and personally relevant experiences. It focuses on the design of both a product’s usability and the pleasure users feel when using it. Aside from usability and desirability, it is also concerned with the entire process of acquiring and interacting with the product. Including aspects of branding, visual design, and function.
Let’s look at blockchain technology at a high-level and try to understand some of the implications it might have for UX and interaction design.
A problem of understanding
In a 2017 study on “Trust in Technology”, covering 12,000 people across 11 countries, the HSBC found that 80% of people had never heard of or don’t know what blockchain or distributed ledgers are. In fact, among specific technologies asked about, blockchain was the one least heard about.
While those of us involved in technology have likely heard about, or are already working on blockchain, the wider world is mostly unaware.
Blockchain is, all things considered, a relatively “new” technology. It is also more than just the platform underlying crypto-currencies like Bitcoin. It has the potential disrupt many of the products and services people are using today. Impacting products in financial management, shipping, health, and social platforms.
Unfortunately, the products built using blockchain technology have so far failed to realize or address the issue of design for a wider audience
What is a blockchain?
Given the lack of understanding and awareness, let’s first strive to define exactly what blockchain is using understandable terminology.
A blockchain is a shared record book. Everyone sharing the record book also shares ownership of the records. The people sharing the record book also share the job of validating that the information stored in those records is correct. Once a record is created and validated it can no longer be changed. And due to the shared ownership and validation the blockchain lends itself to better security and transparency.
This is a simplified description, to be sure. Blockchain people will likely balk at that definition because I didn’t talk about blocks, hashes, cryptographic security, nodes, proof of work/stake, etc. But that’s partly the point for most companies using blockchain to build new products. If 80% of the people who would be your target consumers don’t understand the technology, you need a better way to inform them of the value proposition that blockchain offers.
Or, maybe you don’t need to explain it at all.
Your product is not the blockchain. Just like your product is not the cloud, the database, or micro-services. Your product is focused on delivering value to or solving a need for real people — banking, chat, supply chain, tracking their health, etc. The blockchain just happens to be the underlying technology you’ve chosen to help implement your new product.
Your product’s value to your customers is not the blockchain, but rather the pain-point it solves or the pleasure it brings to some aspect, task or endeavor in your customers’ lives. This has always been the focus of user experience and interaction design. Don’t lose sight of the bigger picture and goals for which your product is intended.
Some concepts to keep in mind
The value of your product in the market to which it is applicable is likely not new. People already do banking, sign contracts, buy groceries, ship packages, etc.. The fact that you are implementing your particular product on a blockchain versus some other technology, shouldn’t change how you approach design .
Think about email as an analogy. How many people using email could tell you anything about POP3, IMAP, DNS, or any of the underlying technology that makes email possible? How many of them would even have any idea that those things even exist?
Designing for blockchain is still just designing for humans. But that’s not to say that underlying technology never has any impact on design decisions. While good product design tends to be opaque to the technology implementing it, sometimes it can be beneficial to be more transparent or expose the user to some degree.
This is still human centered, digital design. That being said, here’s some things to keep in mind when designing for blockchain.
1. Talk to your users
This is solid advice in any product. And it’s the one thing you should be doing for any product if you want it to be successful.
Early adopters of crypto-currencies, technical tinkerers and speculative investors may be happy with command line or bare-bones applications and interfaces. But if blockchain is to gain widespread adoption, companies building products need to engage with users early and often. The late coming public will demand that applications meet a high standard of quality, design and usability relative to what they’re used to now. If you can’t meet that, don’t count on mass adoption.
Define who your target users are for your product and engage with them from the outset via interviews, surveys and usability testing. This will help you uncover problems and issues you might not have seen until after launch. It helps to test your assumptions, mitigate risk and reduce rework. It helps you validate your product concept and design as you move forward. Letting you build the right product based on actual customer behavior.
You are not your user. Don’t design a product based on assumptions.
2. Trust and credibility
The idea of designing for trust is important in many applications for different reasons. Users of e-commerce systems must trust the product with their credit card or other financial information. Patients must trust health care providers with their personal medical history. Almost every application needs to build some level of trust with the user.
Blockchain applications and services are no different. Because blockchain has the potential to affect the products people use every day, the importance of building and maintaining trust is just as important. As a new technology with low levels of understanding by the public, applications need to be more vigilant about how they go about building that trust when introducing products using blockchain.
There are many ways to design for trust in new products, all of which are applicable for blockchain. The Nielson/Norman Group provides some good guidance on designing for trust as well. The following are some key considerations for blockchain products.
Appearance and Consistency
The old saying “never judge a book by its cover” is a bit altruistic in the world of digital product design. In fact, it’s likely the first thing your product will get judged on. Because the relative quality of design and experience is continually increasing, your blockchain product needs to match or exceed existing, non-blockchain products in the same market.
Consistency is important for building trust with users as well. Using clear iconography, visual styles, plain and clear language and familiar flow and function all put users at ease when interacting with your product.
You wouldn’t trust someone you think is hiding something from you, would you? Of course not. Letting the user have visibility into what your product does is important for blockchain. Let them know what your product is doing when they initiate a task. And let them know what will be done next. Stepping them through their journey is critical to building trust.
Set expectations up front with your users. Make sure to call out transaction fees they may incur when performing tasks. Depending on the type of service you’re providing, this may also extend to showing shipping or delivery dates, pick-up or drop-off times or other estimates.
Show them relevant information, in the context of when they need it.
Ensuring that this information is easy to find and discover is important. Your product’s information architecture is critical to acquisition, retention and building trust. If a user doesn’t trust you because they feel you’re hiding something or opaque about your intentions, they’ll likely leave you for a competitor they trust more.
3. Timing, feedback and one-way actions
Users today have become used to instantaneous feedback when performing tasks. Purchasing something on Amazon gets a response and confirmation in 1–2 seconds once they click “Place your order.” Making a transfer from your particular bitcoin wallet to another user’s address, on the other hand, is not exactly in the 1–2 second range.
Because of how validation and confirmation works on a blockchain network, confirming transactions can take much longer than users have come to expect. As of December this last year, transactions on the Bitcoin network have taken anywhere from 30 minutes to over 16 hours to confirm. This confirmation will vary depending on the rules of the particular blockchain network, number of confirmations needed, the amount of network activity and transaction fees.
Constant and consistent feedback about what tasks your user has performed, is currently performing and what will happen afterwards is an important part of your user’s experience. Make it clear when there are transaction fees or that performing a task will have side effects. Set proper expectations about the timing of tasks and activities within your product. If a transaction may take 16 hours to confirm, what will your user feel, think, or expect? UX designers will need to be creative about building interactions with appropriate feedback in these situations.
You’ll also want to make sure the user is aware of the irreversible nature of records on the blockchain. They need to understand that if they make a mistake that “there are no take backs on the blockchain” (Jonny Howle, IBM, Blockchain Design Principles) .
Empathy, clarity of intent and actions in your design can help step the users through verifying their information. Be proactive to help the user complete their goals.
4. Onboarding and education
As we mentioned at the beginning of this article, there is a large awareness gap in the public about blockchain. UX Designers will be at the forefront of helping bridge this gap. We can help simplify the complexity of the blockchain until it becomes invisible.
This won’t happen overnight, though. The Internet, automobiles, email and even the personal computer only became ubiquitous when the complexity of the technology was abstracted enough through good design that people could finally delight in the real value it could bring them. Until blockchain gets to that point, there won’t be the kind of mass consumer adoption everyone is predicting.
We can begin this process through better onboarding journeys for users of blockchain products. Make education available in your products in simple ways. Not hidden away in some f.a.q. but intrinsic to the context and content of the screens you’re building. Stay away from jargon and buzzwords. Use plain language to encourage, inform and guide users toward their goals.
Blockchain is something every technologist has on their radar. Depending on who you talk to, it’s either the best promise of hope or the biggest purveyor of hype. Regardless, it will impact markets and products in myriad ways in the future.
Designers are playing an important part in how blockchain technology wins or loses in that future. Designing for any product should focus on the user and their goals. Never the underlying technology. Designing for any technology will always pull the focus for designers towards the pernicious and sub-optimal parts of that technology in order build great experiences on top of them.
Don’t lose focus of how your product is making your user successful. And don’t let the technology become the ends, rather than the means.
David is Founder and multiple-hat-wearer at Tandem.ly, where he continually searches for ways to improve how we build and use the web with every cup of coffee (and he drinks a lot of coffee).
Tandem.ly is a full-service, digital design & development venture that provides dedicated product teams to help companies build design-led, customer-driven products that meet business goals and serve real customer needs. Get in touch with us at hello @ tandem.ly