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How UX Can Bring Blockchain to the Masses

How UX Can Bring Blockchain to the Masses

Blockchain is an advanced form of digital record-keeping wherein ledgers — like those that keep track of financial transactions or voting ballots — are decentralized, encrypted and distributed across a network of personal computers. Because there’s no single point of failure, blockchains are a much harder target for cyber-attackers than, say, one network containing the personal information of 145 million consumers.

Since there’s no single owner, and millions of users are policing the ledgers, blockchains all but eliminate the possibility of manipulating records and cheating the system. But if blockchain is really going to change lives, it can’t just be a highly technical tool employed by governments and massive financial institutions. It needs to be easy to use and understand. Simply put, blockchain needs great UX, and the creative talent to pull it off.

The Promise of UX

Integrating a strong UX presence into product development can mean the difference between a trusted product and a total flop. Just ask MySpace, Foursquare or Snapchat, all of whom ignored UX best practices and suffered the consequences when users fled. When deployed effectively, UX teams can elevate the value of a product through efficient, agile processes.

“Discover, define, design, develop, deploy,” explains Bettinna Justinien, president and creative director at design firm Bettymedia. “[This process] involves user research, observational research, information architecture, testing, prototypes, more testing and quality assurance.”

Typically, technology companies hire skilled UX designers to apply a heightened level of care and research to the development of the product, and a customer-centric POV to its design. Most modern companies have seen the light and are reaping the benefits — but according to Justinien, blockchain is already falling behind. “There is no UX design in the blockchain right now,” she says. “Everyone says they want it, but they aren't investing in it.”

Blockchain’s UX Problem

While blockchain and cryptocurrency companies around the world are investing heavily in marketing, branding, and UI, they are not yet focused on refining UX. Ivan Braun, founder of trusted design resource Icons8 asks why in a company blog post: “What will destroy Bitcoin? Governments? Hackers? Winklevoss twins? Usability.” By completely removing the human element, Braun argues, blockchain and its crypto offspring are alienating potential users.

Part of the usability challenges are owed to the speed at which startups are moving to capitalize on the technology. “These startup companies rely on the developers who are practically grabbing UI from the web and doing it themselves, without a process. Many projects are not tested,” Justinien explains.

The opportunity for UX in blockchain is readily apparent. Justinien recalls her experience at a recent developers’ conference in Boston: “I was the only designer there in a room full of engineers, mathematicians and scientists — people from Harvard, MIT and Boston University that engineer for government defense,” she says. “Even though I can code, I'm not a software engineer or scientist. The world of blockchain is very code-driven, down to the public and private keys for transactions."

This tech bias has not helped the public’s perception of blockchain as a solution to the world’s problems. Mainstream audiences still don’t understand or trust it, and since offering absolute trust is the blockchain’s overall purpose, that’s a big problem. But just as the internet began as a project shaped by scientists and researchers before evolving to accommodate design, blockchain’s technocratic community may be the foundation for new leaps in usability. All it takes is a few talented designers to kick things off.

Hope for blockchain UX

UX may not be getting enough attention from blockchain companies at present, but the opportunities for its implementation are not going unnoticed. Next month, Justinien will host Cake and UX, an event in New York City dedicated to bringing UX solutions to entrepreneurs in the blockchain and cryptocurrency space.

One of the topics sure to be discussed is the need for user advocacy in blockchain and other digital technology. “Why aren't there advocates for users — especially for financial services and user data — in the digital world?” Justinien asks. "We can design for trust and, in turn, know that a product or service can actually be accessible to the average person."

Luckily, there is a slowly growing UX presence in the blockchain community, and vice-versa, as companies become proactive with hiring and training. Coinbase, one of the few user-friendly digital currency exchanges, recently hired ex-Facebook product designer Connie Yang as its new design director. In an interview with UX advocacy org Cascade, Yang believes that traditional UX philosophies still apply in this growing space, and companies should keep that in mind when seeking new talent.

“The skills are not necessarily different from a typical design process,” Yang said. “Crypto as an industry has a lot of incredibly smart people building new tech, verticals and ideas. I think the place you can have the most impact is being the bridge between those complex concepts and the typical consumer; communicating what the simplest building blocks are.”

In other words, “Just be a good designer.”

Blockchain and UX unite!

Blockchain is still in its infancy and, like any new technology, it’s going to have its share of growing pains. To prevent those pains from getting in the way of blockchain’s potential, UX and blockchain developers need to unite and adapt in tandem.

Design firms must dive deep into the technology to learn its pain points and devise more useful applications, and blockchain companies have to learn to resist the urge to hire exclusively tech-savvy talent. Fostering new skills development — like coding in the design world, and UX at crypto companies — will help create the collaborative environment required to see the public embrace the blockchain.

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