How blockchains redefine ownership and trust in online communities

With the hesitation to trust who and what we interact with online, can blockchains remove the need to trust all together?

One of the biggest fundamental shifts in thinking we make to understand the value of blockchains, is how they dismantle the traditional ways in which we trust. More explicitly, blockchains reimagine the ways we trust things like websites, data sharing, institutions, brands, and even the internet itself. In fact, blockchains can remove the need for trusting all together. But how?

Trust Definitions

For starters, let’s unpack what we mean by trust and understand the difference between trust, distrust, and trustless.

Trust is an emotion and conviction that the party you’re interacting with is reputable and has your best interest in mind, or will manage your expectations as originally communicated. Trust is gained. However, when trying to access immediate convenience and perceived value, people have become very carefree (or even careless) when sharing personal information. We’ve begun to trust independent brands with the same ease in which we originally trusted the internet itself.

Distrust is simply not trusting. In the case of online brands and domains however, distrust can be a reaction to the lack of care taken with something as superficial as a website’s interface and written copy. Abundant typos? Broken links? Disorienting design? We’ve learned these cues that trigger feelings of doubt and fear, ultimately they stop us from visiting the website again.

Trustless is a newly popular term that describes a product or service that you never need to actually trust in order to have an enjoyable, and most importantly secure, experience. But if there is no brand or reputation that the user has built trust with over time, how can one be sure that their best interest and security is being managed? The short answer is ‘complete transparency.’ Decentralization and openness is where blockchains shine for the trustless user experience.

Today, when using online resources, we prefer the validation of our peers versus large brands. We prefer when browsers do NOT remember our passwords. We question the sharing of our data when creating new online accounts. We feel violated when ads follow us along in our browsing and in-app experiences and while using downloaded applications. What next? Perhaps blockchains provide a transition and new standards for trust that creates the transparency and distance we need to feel worry free.

When you learn that websites, applications, and entire institutions can exist without needing to trust them with our personal information, you may begin to desire that all systems be trustless and built with the aid of blockchains. Blockchains offer us an assured way to know that the websites and services we use act honestly when in possession of our personal information. They do this by producing a complete public record of transactions that are happening on that system. More so, they let us know who is in possession of what information and when.

In order to fulfill the emotion of trust, we must feel integral and connected to the user experience. We must feel control. The best way to feel control in a trustless system is proving that you are exchanging your own personal information on that system, website, application, etc. This may be valuable to users who don’t want to leave their personal information on public domains, but rather authenticate the sharing of that data when they are using it, and not share that information when they are not. Blockchains inherently provide this ability, requiring a private key signature that only you possess when sending sensitive information (money, health records, private information) into a system or directly to another user.

Trust in the Experience

Now that we understand why blockchains might be the best next step for feeling secure when bringing our personal information online, and the tools (private keys and public blockchains) we need to experience that emotion, we can design a better user experience.

One essential piece of information that a user experience designer must understand before designing a product is the needs and expectations of potential users. Without this information, the designer cannot create and invoke the important values, expectations, and features that ensure a product’s adoption and success. User personas are particularly important when designing experiences for blockchain technology products. Many interactions and aspects of the blockchain stand in contrast to current technologies today, and understanding the best way to meet user expectations with any disruptive technology is essential to long term success. Because the business may choose NOT to provide direct visibility to the blockchain within their product for a more seamless user experience, it is essential that designers provide messaging to assure users that the trustless system is in fact there.

This paradigm shift can be challenging for a user experience designer. Additionally, we have the challenge of user groups that span multiple generations, all with different notions of trust and desires to learn completely new technological models. While younger generations are more sensitive and hesitant to sharing personal data, older generations grew up in a different trust paradigm and may need to unlearn trust before they can learn trustless. This is a challenge that exists regardless of blockchains, however is certainly compounded by them. All users insist on simple, aesthetically pleasing, intuitive application designs. The need for simplicity, combined with complicated sets of interactions using blockchains, presents a complex challenges for a user experience designer.

Evolving Notions of Trust

Let’s discuss an example of a simple service we valued and trusted that we’re in a 3rd or 4th evolution of: Travel Agencies.

Travel agencies were popular and reputable service providers to use when venturing to an unfamiliar place. We would trust that agency, the agent, and their exclusive network or transportation, lodging, and tours to create the best possible end-to-end travel experience. Travelers trusted that the agent was creating a unique and personalized experience, and that  the agency was not incentivized only by those exclusive networks to provide the best recommendations possible.

Now, with data aggregating brands and peer review platforms, we prefer to cast our net the fringes and gather the most well-rounded advice from online peers who have no incentive to send you to one destination over another. Or so it would seem… We now know that even those ‘peers’ are paid promoters, or in some cases, not even real people! As we are learning with conversational ad-targeting on platforms like Facebook, those peer-to-peer platforms, where we spend time chatting with our closest friends, are still quite centralized. In fact, those platforms are systematically mining our data and conversations to deliver targeted ads for advertisers. How can they so this? Simple, they own your data. The travel agency and other private networks are now public yes, however we’re still a ways from being sure that the advice we’re receiving is honest.

Private key signatures can provide this control when the sharing of our data. Perhaps more interesting, private keys can prove the ownership of our online reputations and personas. Those reputations and personas have a value that can persist from community to community, even into the real world.

So why have we strived so adamantly for full ownership of our own content and data? Because we’re now learning the value of the data that we so freely share with the world and businesses – and we don’t like it. It’s like the saying goes “if the product is free to use, YOU are the real product.”

With users becoming savvier and smarter about platforms using their data to manipulate their behavior, user experience designers need to create experiences that both inform and reinforce the notion of ‘full control’ in blockchain products. Continual user research and testing is necessary to ensure that the product is effectively informing the user that yes, they are actually in full control of their data and what the responsibilities of full control entail. Convincing users they do in fact have this level of full control is one part of it – convincing users to accept the responsibilities that come with full control is another.

Building Trusted Products

Here are some considerations to keep in mind specifically when designing a product or platform built on paradigm-shifting technology. (All other best practices for user experience still apply!)

  1. Who is your intended audience?
    1. If your product already exists – who is your current audience?
    2. What are users trying to achieve with your product or platform?
    3. Do you have any other groups that you would like to target?
  2. What current experiences are your users familiar with?
    1. What do they like?
    2. What do they avoid?
    3. How can you modulate or take inspiration from the existing experiences your users are familiar with?
  3. What existing perceptions of new/disruptive technologies affect the way users think about your new technologies?
    1. What pre-existing stereotypes about the technology or product is coloring your users expectations?
    2. How can you either use those stereotypes to help users or shift those stereotypes with your design?
  4. How are you teaching your users within your app or platform?
    1. How are you ensuring that a user doesn’t have to use your product alongside a search engine or FAQ to understand what’s going on?
    2. How are you teaching your user with onboarding, actions and visual cues, and not relying on assumed knowledge or words alone?
  5. How are you gathering feedback and information to support your design decisions?
    1. Are you using, or planning on using, analytics?
    2. Online or in person user surveys?
    3. Customer service chat bots or logs?
    4. One-on-one interviews with likely users?

Trust must be a brand attribute of every product designed and built for today’s digitally dependent humans. It cannot be simply pandered to or inferred. Trust is no longer just the domain of marketing and compelling campaigns. Trust must be built in from the ground up.

Today’s audiences are jaded. They doubt all things before levels of belief settle in. Trust takes time to build and just moments to dismantle. We have the technology to create a new definition for trust that returns it to the core of human collaboration.

Find out how we apply these notions to the brands and products we build in blockchain technology – contact us today.