“Blockchain is essentially just a database. It’s something to build solutions on, not the solution itself. When you think of it, the actual back-end of a piece of software has never really mattered to the end user. People don’t care if you’re using a MySQL or PostgreSQL database or using a backend as a service like Firebase, nor do they care what languages and frameworks you use. All they care about is that it works and the experience is frictionless. The best blockchain projects will be the ones that create new solutions that weren’t possible before blockchain but that are also designed and built so well that the user cannot tell blockchain is powering the solution at all.”
Anthony Tumbiolo, CEO
The usability and user experience (UX) of decentralized applications will influence adoption rates of blockchain spanning sectors including supply chain, finance, marketplaces, medicine, and e-commerce. The way a user interfaces (UI) with an application running on a blockchain needs to be intuitive, clean, and pleasurable.
Good design emphasizes a good user experience. Great design onboard your users to the value your product provides and retains their loyalty. This approach resonated with Vitalik Buterin, a programmer researching cryptocurrency. Ethereum (ETH) was developed as a blockchain structured around principles of design.
What is the Ethereum Blockchain?
Buterin proposed the open-source distributed platform in 2013. The Ethereum white paper, A Next-Generation Smart Contract and Decentralized Application Platform, was published and the ETH blockchain was developed by the Ethereum Foundation with crowdsourced funds. There is an entire section in the technical documentation on Github, used to raise money and awareness, dedicated to the importance of design.
The white paper states that the design behind Ethereum follows best practices. The design principles are:
- non-discrimination & non-censorship
Coupled with the intent of Ethereum, which is to “create an alternative protocol for building decentralized applications,” this feels a lot like design-thinking blockchain development. It makes sense that the dApps being built to run on the ETH blockchain should follow the same best practices.
How does design for blockchain relate to digital product design?
Great design for digital products mirrors these tenets. The concept of Usability in product design echoes the simplicity in design pillar of the Ethereum philosophy.
Defined by ISO 9241 standard (ergonomics of human-computer interaction) Usability is,
“The extent to which a product can be used by specified users to achieve specified goals with effectiveness, efficiency, and satisfaction in a specified context of use.” The ethos that shaped the design of the Ethereum blockchain hinges on this quale.
What are the types of decentralized applications that can run on the Ethereum Blockchain?
The white paper categorizes the variety of decentralized applications that can run on Ethereum as financial, semi-financial, and voting/governance. Wow, that is big. Think of all the apps you use for paying your bills, cashing in reward points, donating to charity, booking flights, checking your 401k and investments, ordering online, or cutting checks for freelance work. Applications facilitating transactions involving money or impacting governance should be designed around user experience and constructing an interface that gets the users to their solution on the most efficient and satisfying path.
Well crafted UX and UI will bridge the gap in simplicity and usability that is causing technical confusion (multisig transactions, interoperability of tokens, security backed transfers between chains and implementation of smart contracts) with design-thinking development. Great design will integrate blockchain into software and applications you need. This will accelerate the incorporation of blockchain into the apps, software, and tools we use every day.
How are corporations and institutions addressing issues in blockchain usability?
Companies like Amazon (AWS) are doing their part to provide accessibility without discrimination via blockchain templates hosted on the cloud. Microsoft just announced Ethereum on Azure, allowing developers to deploy and configure an Ethereum blockchain in less than an hour and with minimal knowledge. The Linux Foundation champions the collaborative development of Hyperledger and open source blockchain tools. Designers will win the loyalty of users by creating interfaces and experiences for blockchain-based software and decentralized applications that are trustworthy and feel good to use.
Consider an app store that utilizes blockchain technology, reliant on a peer-to-peer network of computers. My favorite description so far explains how decentralized applications use blockchain akin to the way the Facebook app uses the innately trusting protocols of the internet. This new way of transferring information and value allows developers to build decentralized applications on a trustless, secure platform fueled by cryptography and consensus.
What’s on the horizon?
A future where applications run on decentralized platforms that support smart contracts mitigates censorship, fraud, and government interference. The barriers to entry are shrinking with intellectual collaboration and the advent of interoperability protocols and blockchain templates. Services are in development for non-coding smart contract development and token issuance. The significant hurdles for mainstream adoption stem from accessibility and usability issues. These problems will be solved by incorporating design into development.