Blockchain is gaining attention in mainstream media while amassing a cult following of early adopters. Sensational news demonstrates, that for some companies like Longfin, Kodak, or Long Blockchain (formerly Long Island Iced Tea) that acquisition of a blockchain company, announcements of token offerings, or company name changes signaling intent can send stock values soaring.
Diving deeper than hype and speculation, blockchain is still in infancy. Significant barriers to adoption of blockchain fall on accessibility and user experience. In this article, we present the hurdles industry leaders are tackling in developing user interfaces (UI) and user experience (UX) that will improve blockchain usability and result in higher adoption.
What are dApps?
Decentralized applications, otherwise known as dApps, are open-sourced apps that provide incentivization of users and block creation through token economies and adhere to protocols that dictate crypto economic rules for maintaining the consensus nature of the blockchain – the p2p distribution network on which it runs.
To be considered a dApp, an application has to meet a set of criteria:
Open Source: freely available code source, often published to repositories like GitHub
Incentivized: those providing computational power can mine coins. Tokens generated have inherent value
Decentralized: built on a technology that utilizes cryptography and packs transactions into blocks for immutability via consensus
Algorithmic/Protocol: consensus and token generation
Once an application meets requirements to be considered a decentralized application, it is classified into one of three types.
Type I: A decentralized app that has its own blockchain (Bitcoin, Ethereum, Altcoins)
Type II: Protocols that use tokens to function and adhere to the same standards as Type I dApps
Type III: Use the protocols from Type II DApps and strictly require tokens to function.
Decentralized applications vary in complexity, use cases, blockchains they are built upon, and the protocol layers they use. The bitcoin craze has led to high levels of an assumption that cryptocurrency is blockchain, but in actuality, dApps can be highly functional without touching on any aspect of crypto or exchanges with fiat money.
Crypto evangelists preach the end-of-days for authoritative, central systems that structure modern day governance and financial systems. In actuality, established institutions like Fortune 100s, banks, and marketplaces are filing patents in an attempt to bridge gaps in cybersecurity and technology portfolio to avoid outright replacement.
Dubai Utilizes Blockchain for City Improvement
Accounting for over 30 percent of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) population, the city-state of Dubai is working on multiple initiatives to concrete its place as an innovation hub. This concerted push on pillars grounded in “human capital and research” and “creative outputs” improved the UAE ranking in the 2017 Global Innovation Index by six places to 35th, globally.
The technology arm of a city-wide smart transformation initiative, known as Smart Dubai Gov, is developing a blockchain strategy to improve city services. Looking forward, they envision blockchain as a tool to incite improvement. The comprehensive blockchain strategy emphasizes three goals: increasing government efficacy by transitioning all applicable government transactions to the blockchain, spurring development of the blockchain industry and ecosystem within Dubai, and ground-floor positioning as a global leader in blockchain advancement. These initiatives are expected to reduce administration expenditure in Dubai by 5.5 billion dirhams (1.5 billion USD) annually.
Paying close attention to token economies and blockchain generation of tokens that are already used today as currency, Dubai plans to offer citizens to the option to pay for both government and non-government services on an inter-operable, decentralized platform. Smart Dubai is facing the same hurdles enterprise and blockchain startups encounter when it comes to creating an interface and front-end user experience that civilians feel comfortable using without the steep learning curves common of current technical dApps.
Clean Energy Made Simple
dApps can provide two-fold impact by catalyzing innovation in civil-based projects, as well as increasing trust and visibility with project investors. Utilities have been leading the forefront in innovation, from solar power to wind turbines. With this new technology, services reliant on energy grids can benefit immensely by putting energy on the blockchain. A blockchain energy grid satisfies the transactional needs of the marketplace to buy and sell energy, provides transparency and tracking of clean energy, allows users that are generating clean energy to sell it back, and incentivizes the adoption of renewable energy resources.
Decentralized applications running on blockchain can authenticate, source, and accelerate the collection and distribution of clean energies such as hydropower, geothermal, wind, and solar.
As blockchain emerges on the collective conscious, decentralized apps are appearing that champion using blockchain to solve problems in digital social interaction, the gig-economy, digital rights, and gaming.
User-controlled Social Media
The prevalence of cyber attacks, hacking, and unauthorized third-party data collection have inundated users to the truth that their private information is rarely kept so. After a terse testimony by the CEO of Facebook in front of the US Senate, on what some consider gross negligence with far-reaching impact, users are becoming more cautious about what data they share with social media platforms.
Social media dApps are gaining in popularity as developers build blockchain solutions and decentralized applications geared towards privacy and stronger control over data. As dApp social platforms address accessibility issues and improve user experience, blockchain early adopters aim for a future where true identity ownership returns to the user.
Reliable, Accessible Rideshare
Rideshare giants, such as Uber and Lyft, have entered the tradition taxi ecosystem as an invasive species undercutting costs through technology and usability. In many areas, conventional taxi services have been detrimentally impacted so severely that cities try to mitigate damages by issuing a rideshare cap. The convenience of modern rideshare apps comes at a cost. In November of 2017, Uber was fined $20 million by the FTC for improperly screening drivers, allowing “disqualified” aka felonious or predatory criminals to pick up trusting users, issuance of pawnshop-eque loans, and publishing outright lies on median driver income.
The immutability of transactions on blockchain ledgers means that dApps can be used to fill in the accountability, safety, and flexibility gaps by cross-referencing past government records or user ride history. Integrating cryptocurrency with rideshare dApps also introduces the potential to reward drivers, who currently suffer from the lack of financial transparency, with token-based commision.
Gaming Gives Power to the Players
Gaming and early adoption tend to go hand in hand. Armed with top-of-the-line computer hardware specs, blockchain gamers lead the march to build, tokenize, and raise awareness (and concurrent users) of blockchain based games, games marketplaces, and “grey-market” transactions of in-game assets, characters, and custom skins.
A champion of smart contracts, gaming dApps create an open line of communication between developers and their player base. In-game currencies aren’t limited by game. Players can purchase assets in one gaming dApp, verify their authenticity, and trade them for assets from other games. Lordmancer II, a MORPG built on the blockchain, stands out amongst an ever-increasing crowd of crypto-focused games. While Lordmancer II does contain trading and innate cryptocurrency, it’s one of the first blockchain-based games to support full-fledged gameplay.
Gamification of onboarding stands to benefit dApps across the spectrum by adopting techniques used by the games industry to teach users how to navigate new environments. Games such as Cryptozombies teach players how to write smart contracts in solidity while rewarding good work done by enabling players to build their own crypto-collectible game.
Blockchain has a UX and usability problem
Applications built on blockchain face mainstream resistance in adoption stemming from inaccessibility. Frequently, the process to even sign up or understand how to interact with the decentralized applications is technically complicated, arduous, and confusing. Applications running on the internet are moving towards one-click sign up through Google or Facebook after noting considerable user drop off as the number of steps-to-use increase. Blockchain dApps oftentimes require connected wallets and over ten steps for set-up. MetaMask, a blockchain wallet disguised as an add-on supported by popular browsers such as Firefox, Chrome, and Opera, is tackling UX and usability issues by acting as a gateway connecting your browser to the Ethereum blockchain.
Renowned user experience research firm Nielsen Norman Group defines user experience (UX) as:
- Meeting the customer’s exact needs, without fuss or bother
- Simple and elegant
- A joy to own, a joy to use
- Goes far beyond giving customers what they say they want
If you’re familiar with cryptocurrency hot and cold wallets, centralized exchanges, smart contracts, and dApps, you understand the growing pains of blockchain-based applications.
Okay, so what about usability?
Note: this is different from UX. Usability specifically refers to the ease of use, or lack of it, for users interfacing (UI) with the technology.
Nielsen Norman Group uses the five following heuristics to measure usability:
Learnability: How easy is it for users to accomplish basic tasks the first time they encounter the design?
Efficiency: Once users have learned the design, how quickly can they perform tasks?
Memorability: When users return to the design after a period of not using it, how quickly can they re-establish proficiency?
Errors: How many mistakes do users make, how severe are these errors, and how quickly can they recover from the errors?
Satisfaction: How pleasant is it to use the design?
As technical limitations are challenged, and the design of blockchain-powered applications improves, we hope to contribute to the best practices that will make usability mainstream for dApps and smart contracts.
Current Problems with Blockchain
UX and usability principles for blockchain are engrained in the design-thinking manifesto that shaped the development of the Ethereum blockchain. A common analogy pairs the emergence of blockchain to the early days of the world wide web. Primitive websites consisted of plaintext. As an open web community collaborated in the advancements of web technologies, the introduction of ever-improving HTML, CSS, and WebGL have improved the breadth of capabilities and user experiences an internet user can access.
Unlike the internet, which was developed in a university setting as an innately trusting portal for sharing, blockchain tackles issues in centralized authority, intellectual property infringement, authentication, and security breaches. The UX and usability of the internet have widely outpaced expectations set by early adopters sacrificing phone lines to fire up Netscape and download a CD in ten hours.
By nature, blockchain was developed to be a trustless technology; an open-source, peer-to-peer network untethered to central control or the whims of corporate entities. However, understanding of what blockchain is, what dApps and smart contracts that operate on blockchain have the potential to do, and skepticism of the security provided by the technology have to be overcome to garner mainstream adoption.
Fortune 500s can leverage the trust in their brand to instill confidence within their userbase as they explore creating solutions reliant on the blockchain, but designing solutions built on blockchain that users can innately understand, use, and trust are top priorities for blockchain projects across the board.
Sarah Baker Mills, Design Director at ConsenSys, noted the importance of user trust when she discussed IBM’s blockchain design principles:
“The user should always know what is happening, what just happened, and what will happen next.”
Help your users understand blockchain. Because blockchain is still a relatively new concept, there are bound to be plenty of inexperienced, cautious users. As interest increases, users with varying levels of technical prowess and blockchain knowledge will take the plunge. A troubling trend with token companies and blockchain businesses is the lack of designers experienced in digital product UX and UI involved in development.
As design-thinking digital development gains traction in crafting pleasurable, intuitive applications that run on the internet, we can only hope that the frontrunners will bolster the standards for blockchain UX and UI.
For most users, decentralized apps aren’t easy to use. Try explaining what a crypto wallet is to a family member that struggles to download and use apps on their phone. Whether they’re familiar with the jargon or are comfortable navigating blockchain interfaces, almost all new apps promise a new learning curve.
- Exchanging Between Hot and Cold Wallets
- There are two different types of crypto wallets people can use to store their cryptocurrency:
- Hot Wallet – A wallet connected to the internet
- Cold Wallet – A wallet not connected to the internet
When contemplating the usability of a decentralized app, it’s up to the developers to provide a clear path for users to transfer their money from a wallet and to educate users on how to find the critical path for the value their decentralized app, smart contract, or blockchain game provides. Exchanging currency between hot and cold wallers can be a tedious process, especially for less-technical users, let alone understanding altcoins, exchanges, and interoperability.
Accessing Digital Assets
Crypto wallets require that users create a secure pin which is used to access the wallet. Without the pin, the wallet is inaccessible. While this feature enables crypto wallets to be highly secure, it can also lead to lost funds if a user forgets their pin or has a weakness exploited while their hot wallet is connected to the internet
Many internet users are dependant on the ever-present, “I forgot my password” button located on so many apps. Password retrieval is so commonplace that users may fail to realize the severity of a lost crypto pin. The result is less-than-pleasant user experience. While it is a problematic situation, cryptocurrency DApps need to stress the importance of retaining and safeguarding crypto pins, as well as outline any potential recovery steps, if applicable.
What DApps Need to Improve
Any well-designed application or software requires extensive user research for your apps; decentralized apps are no different. Great UX and UI aren’t ingrained in the first iteration. Blockchain teams building dApps need the insights of designers that advocate the user through every step of development.
Token companies focus on creating highly functional applications. These scrappy, highly technical teams build secure apps that get the job done. However, in most cases, these apps are confusing or experientially bland for blockchain inductees and dApp experts alike.
Design companies excel at creating beautiful, clean interfaces with a pleasant UI navigation experience. Branding and design companies can construct a meaningful front-end experience that feels good, but without technical experience building blockchain projects, the ability of design companies to alleviate adoption pain points falls short.
Incorporation of designers into blockchain teams and design-thinking approach to decentralized apps will solve UX problems we are facing today- common and unique.
Kevin Fleming, the editor for Emerson Stone Design Agency, notes the importance of understanding your users when designing for blockchain:
“Where early adopters and technical users wanted more control and functionality — in essence, to look, and even tinker, under the hood — newcomers and non-technical users will benefit from clear handrails, simple cues and prompts, and few options to go astray.”
By working with designers who understand the technical aspects of blockchain as well as the importance of readability, dApp UX and usability will see a vast improvement.
What’s next for usability and blockchain?
The blockchain is breaching the tipping point where best practices are emerging. However, these standards regarding user experience and usability are practically newborns if blockchain technology is considered to be in its infancy. So, what’s next?
Blockchain design experts: As demand (and budget) for creating well-constructed, pleasurable tools and applications that rely on blockchain increase, the input of designers will begin to show in blockchain digital products.
Evolving ethics: As Mills emphasizes, designers aren’t just creating experiences. They’re protectors. “The trusted machine fails if people are harmed by what we’ve made,” she says. Many blockchains enable what she calls “radical transparency.” Designers are the checks and balances who protect users during product development.
Bespoke on the blockchain: Digital product and innovation studios like JAKT have an advantage by combining a deep technical understanding of new technologies, such as blockchain and AI, with a human-centered design. They turn technical processes into beautiful experiences. As demand increases for B2C decentralized applications, innovation studios with experienced designers will help token companies, blockchain start-ups, and enterprise partners construct well-designed blockchain powered applications that users love.
Excited about the developments in blockchain and technology? Let’s get in touch. We’d love to help you bring your next blockchain powered project to life.