Should ease-of-use ever fully realized in blockchains if that means we have to abstract what’s going on behind the scenes? And even if ease of use can and should be reached, how do we get there from here? With a nod to the history of bitcoin, we discuss how to get to an intuitive blockchain product while remaining true to the founding ideology.
AOL and the internet. Dialing a phone number to reach another person without having to go through an operator. Many new technologies rise to mainstream adoption by making themselves easy to use. This often included abstracting what was going on in the background from the person using the system.
The blockchain is based on trustlessness and transparency (Sources 1,2). If we abstract blockchain technology to make it easy to use, are we undermining its basic tenets?
Abstracting blockchain technology in products does not contravene transparency or trustlessness. Rather, abstraction will help people learn and adopt blockchain technology and help blockchain reach its potential as foundational technology. (Aside: According to the Harvard Business Review, “[Blockchain technology] has the potential to create new foundations for our economic and social systems. But while the impact will be enormous, it will take decades for blockchain to seep into our economic and social infrastructure.” Disruptive technologies, “…attack a traditional business model with a lower-cost solution and overtake incumbent firms quickly.”)
Often, people assume that when something is abstracted in a product, it is completely hidden from view. There have been calls to action to build blockchain products developed in such a way that the end-user may never know the details of the foundational technology. But if we are talking about foundational goals of transparency, is this the right way to implement blockchain technology?
When drivers use an automatic transmission, the dashboard of the car is still displaying the relevant information: RPMs and speed. Shifting the gears has been abstracted away from the driver. The pressing need to watch those gauges to drive well is gone, but data related to engine performance is visible. That data is now reassurance that a driver can trust what is happening with the transmission, though it no longer necessary to refer to constantly.
Abstraction is putting the most important and correct amount of information at the moment in front of the user, without other data or calls to actions straining the cognitive load. Abstract is summarization of the vital points, not obscuring.
Consider what information is important, at what point, rather than relying on traditional models or existing products. Remember that abstraction is about including necessary information, so care needs to be taken to make sure that users are getting enough information about the system. Not a complete lack of information.
Some questions to consider include, When is the best place to record your recovery seed? Is it when the user sets the app up for the first time, or can it be before they make their first transaction? What is the right about of messaging about transaction fees, or other blockchain interactions that are unique to the technology?
Figuring out just the right amount of information requires thoughtful user research and testing (5). Your audience will have specific needs, goals and expectations around information, and talking to them is the best way to find out.
When you know what important information to put in front of a user, the question then becomes a matter of framing. If blockchains are promoting transparency and trustlessness, how can we teach people the basic fundamentals they need to know?
What is the best point to start learning about something new from? Take language. Learning a second (or third, or more) language after childhood is tricky. Native-language teachers learned their first language in a very different setting, and may not understand troubles with grammar or words as they never consciously had to address them. (6)
Meanwhile, the non-native teacher has been through the processes of learning this as a second language, from the same perspective as the student, and can point out tricky places and helpful tips to understand.
Learning how to use blockchain technology is not different. Many new users are struggling to understand a system other people seem to be utterly fluent in. Those native blockchain speakers don’t understand or remember how it may be hard to learn how to interact with blockchains for a first timer. They have already internalized perilous gaps and tripping points, and unconsciously deal with them at a muscle-memory level. Handing over some tech documentation and a list of jargon will only serve to widen that gap for most, and not bridge it.
But blockchain technology products that understand the perspectives of the average user, and utilize those expectations and conventions as learning tools, will see success. When users are presented with familiar information, they are more comfortable and willing to go along with a new product. And adopt that product, share it with their friends, and come back to it time and time again. (7)
What familiar reference points to blockchain technology exist? It depends on what product you are building. If you are building a wallet – look at other bank apps, cash-sending apps, and apps that let the user pay with their phone. Familiar points of reference include utilizing credit-card shaped designs, transactions, references to USD or other currencies, and simple, easy to send and receive interactions. If you are building a logistics system – barcode scanning packages, data-entry points for record-keeping, and more.
Rather than inimical or contrary to founding principles, abstracting blockchain tech is necessary for mass adoption. Blockchain products can succeed by being easy to use, while still remaining true to the founding ethos. Ease of use can inspire more people to not only adopt blockchain technology, but learn about blockchains, understand blockchains, and add to the growing community of blockchain supporters.
- Bitcoin’s First Transaction – https://www.blockchain.com/btc/tx/4a5e1e4baab89f3a32518a88c31bc87f618f76673e2cc77ab2127b7afdeda33b?show_adv=true, accessed 10 April 2019 @ 4:00p
- “Chancellor on brink of…” Original Article – https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/chancellor-alistair-darling-on-brink-of-second-bailout-for-banks-n9l382mn62h, accessed 10 April 2019 @ 4:00p
- The Truth About Blockchain. Harvard Business Review. https://hbr.org/2017/01/the-truth-about-blockchain, accessed 11 April 2019
- In Blockchain We Trust. https://www.technologyreview.com/s/610781/in-blockchain-we-trust/, accessed 11 April 2019.
- Why You Only Need to Test with 5 Users https://www.nngroup.com/articles/why-you-only-need-to-test-with-5-users/, accessed 16 April
- The 4 NELTAL Conference, March 31, 2012. Native English Speaker Teachers (NESTs) versus Non Native English Speaker Teachers (NNESTs) in TESOL. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/282664320_Native_Speaker_versus_Non_Native_Speaker_Teachers_in_TESOL, accessed 16 April 2019
Match between system and the real world. https://www.nngroup.com/articles/match-system-real-world/, accessed 16 April 2019