Of Blockchain, Decentralization, and User Experience

Of Blockchain, Decentralization, and User Experience

Decentralized Design

Computers are connected in a seemingly boring but paramount way when it comes to blockchain technology.

A blockchain is somewhat like a digital database. The difference between a digital database and blockchain is the way the data is structured. The information is stored in blocks and each block has a storage capacity. Once the capacity is reached, the block closes and connects itself to the last filled block. This chain of data is known as blockchain. Blockchains are popular because they’re secure and decentralized records of transactions.

These blocks are permanent; they can’t be altered later which adds to the security. Moreover, it’s decentralized. What that means is that not one body of authority controls it. With a normal database, if the computer storing it, say, caught fire, the database would be lost. With blockchain technology, however, lots of computers at different locations would have to be set on fire for any sort of damage to happen.

Lots of UX Designers are intimidated by Blockchain technology and understandably so. It’s a vast and foreign concept to us. Cryptocurrencies are what we usually associate Blockchain technology with but the reality is that it’s being used in lots of other ways now. Walmart uses it to track its food produce so if something goes bad or is contaminated, they can trace it back all the way to the origin. 

The most popular blockchain technology that people use are decentralized apps called Dapps. They cover just as many spheres as normal mobile apps and have a similar interface too. The same UX problems that lead to a bad user experience plague  decentralized apps too. For example, a complex interface, unintuitive microcopy, flawed security or even regulation measures. 

Now the frontend of a dapp is pretty similar to that of a regular mobile app. What makes dapps harder to design for is their backend. Because dapps are on the blockchain, they can’t be altered. Remember, everything on the blockchain is permanent. Because they are so hard to modify, it needs to be as perfect as possible before release. With normal mobile apps, there are iterations after iterations. Updates after updates. Dapps do not have that luxury. User testing is possible with a prototype but a huge difficulty lies in anticipating the market’s reaction.

For example, a dapp is built, tested against, and released. Now, the general public could have a completely different opinion than the focus group you used for research. Or someone pointed out a seemingly harmless issue which resulted in a lot of whiplash. Or there was a microcopy spelling mistake that went unnoticed. Or the app didn’t age well as the world moved along. 

The possibilities for failures are endless. UX designers and researchers have a lot on their plate when building a dapp. Because of the limitation of making changes, you aren’t just designing for the present; you’re also designing for the future.

There are some more challenges that make for a poor user experience:

  1. Speed: The fact that this is almost common knowledge is worrisome. Dapps are known to be much slower than their mobile app counterparts. Since dapps work on many nodes to process transactions, one transaction can take a while. To put this into perspective, an app like Facebook processes 10,000 transactions a second while a dapp, on average, processes around 15 transactions a second.
  2.  dApps often require users to use a separate browser or plugin to interact with them. This can be inconvenient for users and may discourage them from using the dApp. A way to fix this would be to allow users to access the app from their smartphone or from a normal web browser.
  3. Personal Keys: Blockchain really breaks away from traditional UX over here. Whenever we forget a password to any website, we expect that we can recover it through a vast array of means. This could be through an email link, an otp sent to your phone number or simply entering your last password. However with Blockchain, forgetting your personal key is a serious issue and it isn’t emphasized enough.

Why is this important?

There’s a popular quote: “Blockchain will do to the banks what the Internet did to the media.”

Because Blockchain technology, as foreign and as fancy as it sounds, has potential. If designed in a way that every user can actually use it – the possibilities are then limitless. Already people are trying to replace fiat money with cryptocurrency. More than that, blockchain tech is the most secure way to store records. It could be used to transparently manage voting systems during elections, to store real estate records like property and deeds, to verify educational documents like degrees and transcripts. And even music! Blockchain could track and understand licensing of music so the musicians are fairly compensated for their work.

How do we make this happen?

It’s common knowledge that this isn’t much of a technological problem than a design problem. If you want people to adapt to a new solution, you make it easy to adapt to. And right now, Blockchain suffers from poor UX. They say you don’t notice good design and that’s true. We use all sorts of machinery in our daily lives, and usually don’t have the faintest clue about their internal mechanisms and workings. Blockchain needs something like this.

Regardless of the additional features, limits, and constraints, the blockchain user experience remains a user experience. Therefore there is no need to reinvent the wheel. The vast majority of well-known design concepts and patterns remain relevant and useful.

There are a few ways we can help ease users into using blockchain technology:

  1. Make the learning curve gentle: When it comes to any new technology, there usually is a steep learning curve. But there doesn’t have to be. Despite an assortment of new features, we can make blockchain easier to use. To figure out how though would require extensive user research.
  1. Guide your users: Even if it’s a decentralized app used for buying crypto, it’s alright if there are splash screens there showing the user the ins and outs of the app. These designs have always been appreciated.
  1. Emphasize on the important things: Blockchain technology comes with its own set of issues so you must design with the understanding that the user is coming in without a lot of previous blockchain knowledge. This means you must highlight important points. Tell the user that their personal key is of utmost importance. Stress on the fact that it would take a long time to regenerate one. Another matter is the irreversibility of transactions in Blockchain. A transaction, once carried out, is permanent. Don’t keep your user in the dark; let them know things.
  1. Promote feedback: Because this is such a new concept, implementing feedback is of paramount importance. Design a space in your technology for users to put forth their propositions or complaints. Let the users raise issues so you can design accordingly.
  1. KISS: This is a famous acronym in coding. KISS: Keep it simple, stupid! The same logic can be used here. Despite all the advanced technology Blockchain uses, people don’t need to know that. Keep it under the hood and keep the interface simple. If there’s a lot of information you need to put out there, find a way. Make splash screens, add a FAQ in the corner or even a warning message before a transaction or any action that could hurt the user’s sentiments if it doesn’t go as planned.

Blockchain technology is here to stay. Financial experts have predicted that it might replace fiat money by 2050. To people, this means a changing world. To UX designers, this an opportunity to upgrade your skills and be ready for when the time comes.

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Written by
Priyal Mehta