The User Experience of Blockchain Technology, Part I

Innovation at the speed of software - why blockchains broke standard UX practices.


This is likely the most interesting conversation we have, and work that we get to do at Ideas By Nature. The supporting statement that we tend to echo is: “What good is innovation, if no one can use it?”

The topic of blockchain technology’s effect on user experience design delves into many areas that quickly become philosophical as well as industrial. Over the next few weeks, I’ll be publishing multiple blogs on this topic, to allow readers an opportunity to explore each topic and notion.

Over the past 10-odd years, the user experience designer has been able to hone their skills and solutions for a myriad of scenarios, even creating widely accepted standards for solving common problems. That is not to say they haven’t been confronted with new challenges and presented thoughtful solutions, however, blockchain technologies have presented a shift in the way that we experience things like ownership, identity, money, security, and trust. These new psychological concepts place demands on the user experience that wasn’t prepared for, as this new technology appeared somewhat overnight.

So why is the user experience with blockchains and cryptocurrencies so complicated? There are many reasons… The largest reason, we believe, for why blockchain technology-enabled products are so hard to use, is that the innovation is not just technology and the user interface! In fact, the innovation is in how we re-contextualize our social and institutional relations. For example, money and the “exchange of value” between people is not often contemplated as we move about the world each day. We’re more concerned with making and spending it. Societal innovations that require mental model shifts for adoption are entirely more challenging than behavioral changes, like sharing pictures online.

This innovation has implications across society, global and local economies, and human relations. Furthermore, we’ve been delivered one of the biggest innovations of our time as purely software! The size and speed of this innovation has proven too fast to use (well).

Returning our thoughts to the dawn of the internet, when users we were more “slowly” delivered innovation – at each stop along the journey, we were able to modify our understanding. From dial-up to ISDN to “broadband” to continuous streaming – we’ve worked up to the current internet services on our wrists. There was a massive production and delivery of hardware (mainly PCs, cd-rom software, modems, hubs, routers, etc.) and infrastructure to our world for the sole purpose of experiencing the world wide web. Users had slow merging onramps.

“Buck Rogers and Dick Tracey gave us an image of the future before it got here. We imagined the new world before we had it.”

With the paradigm shattering innovation of blockchains being delivered in pure software, the average user’s technical abilities were eclipsed and unaccounted for. It’s like learning how to drive different cars throughout your life and then having the option to fly a plane or helicopter to work. The mode is faster, allows you to bypass traffic and road laws, public transportations schedules, etc. What’s the problem? It’s too damn complicated to use! There is a considerable learning curve in order for you to realize the potential value of flying to work.

This unrealistic expectation is similar when asking people to use cryptocurrencies and blockchains to replace money, banks, centralized applications/ databases, and the myriad of other values that blockchains bring to a centralized world. The technology, processes, and experience is still far too foreign for almost all users. Most fascinating yet, is that the full value of blockchain technology is truly immeasurable, largely due to the fact that most users have not yet grasped a foundational understanding.

So, what are designers doing about it?

User experience and communication designers now have a new set of hurdles to guide users over – ones that are dissimilar to hurdles of the past. For instance, they may need to stop users at the virtual door and gather information about their abilities, in order to onboard them correctly. More critical, user experience designers must sometimes compromise the true value of blockchains, in order for them to successfully onboard users into a product or community.

An easy example to use is a cryptocurrency exchange like Coinbase or Kraken, they do not require users to manage their own private keys and sign their own transactions – perhaps the most powerful feature and value of blockchains. The result is a bank-like service provider for cryptocurrency that you trust, when the original value proposition was that you didn’t need to trust anymore – you can be your OWN bank.

The challenge of course is that we inherently trust banks and large bank-like institutions. When a user does decide that they would like to experience the full value of the technology, manage their own money, and the critical sensitivity surrounding this responsibility, user experience design exposes a whole new way of thinking to the user. They need to be sure that users are equipped to control their own money, and the digital / physical measures that need to be taken for proper security. As you see, the communication designer must replace century old institutions of trust. No small task.

Here are a few big changes in traditional user experience design brought on with blockchains:

  1. Identity –  Identity on the web is negotiable. Identity on blockchain is not. Using blockchain-enabled products and services requires that identity is confirmed and immutable. The number and depth of of identity qualifiers is what varies based on the governance that each product must adhere to, such as SEC compliance. Two factor authentication (2FA) was just the start and may quickly become insufficient when designing inside such an evolving space. The UX challenge then is to persuade users to engage with stronger security protocols in a manner that is simple, frictionless, and builds confidence.
  2. General blockchain on-boarding – Your identity with a blockchain-enabled product is always tied to a public address (for transacting with other users and the platform). In fact, any asset you are transferring or modifying or even creating, will all have public and private key-pair security. Users must be familiar with how to expose their public address, how to privatize their private key, and the critical difference between the two. The user experience creates the trust, mitigating the need to explain the complicated nature of cryptography, and why it is inherently important to their security.
  3. Making a payment or sending money – Because transaction fees are not being accounted for in the item price, those costs must be accounted for by the user. This accounting and fee is an entirely new UX for e-commerce. Why? Because you are the bank and the payment processor is a blockchain (which no one person owns). That’s a mental model shift that requires a deft touch. This sea change has been squarely placed at the feet of the UX designer. No pressure there! And of course, two factor authentication (2FA), or its next iteration, is likely required if the users are sending funds when they don’t have possession of their own private keys.
  4. UX revolving doors – User experience and communication designers must account for all of the possible scenarios surrounding a successful or failed transaction. Most blockchain technology-enabled products will also require that for registration you are using (at a minimum) some 2-Factor Authentication method. This augments the messaging and user experience onto another device and into other products.The experience and functionality of these other products will also need to be communicated as part of your product’s user experience.

These seemingly simple examples present a host of nuanced challenges that are fundamental to adoption. They are just some of the hurdles user experience designers face as they remain at the edge of the frontier. As blockchain technology disrupts more industries and institutions, user experience design will continue to evolve, solving larger business problems like sovereignty and trust-less economies.

To recap:

Why are blockchains so hard on communication and user experience design?

  • We had no time to prepare! The onramp was lightning-fast as the technology was just there to use one day. Compounded by the economic opportunities in 2017, many uninitiated and unprepared users handled cryptocurrencies. Many will need to learn/relearn how to use the technology they’re using as it becomes more prevalent.
  • The user experience is far more revolutionary than a new way to buy car insurance. It’s not just a better way to perform a familiar task, but a psychological shift in how we view the world. Another thing we like to say is, “once you learn what trust-less truly feels like, you’ll never be able to unlearn it.” You’ll see it everywhere, and question why. This fundamental shift  is now the responsibility of the product designers to solve.
  • For the foreseeable future, we will be completing transactions across different systems that were never designed to provide the user with a feeling of continuity. UX has to use the proverbial “band aid” to try and cover up an awkward series of confirmations as different systems talk with one another.