Designing for the blockchain

Read Time
7 min read
Published On
October 29, 2018
Image Credits: Sergio Guba

Blockchain is a decentralized database technology that has captured the attention of both technologists and businesses alike. It should come as no surprise how much traction this emerging technology has gained in the past year, so much so, that blockchain was amongst one of the most Googled terms in 2017. Yet this curiosity has led to a great deal of skepticism and apprehension, both, within and outside of the tech community. With technologists still trying to unearth the real potential of the blockchain, it has fallen to the designers to think of innovative ways to fully utilize the ability of this emerging technology.

As a Product and UX Designer, these are some of the things that should be taken into consideration when designing for blockchain:

  1. Empowering the User:
    As a relatively new technology with limited exposure to the mass market, decentralized applications must be able to synthesize the complexities and mechanisms of blockchain into simplified user interfaces.  This presents UX designers with a challenge as they need to ensure that the user does not become overwhelmed by the platform or application and that they always feel in control.

    An example of this can be how tokenization applications employ interactive data visualization technique and dashboards to show users a brief view of their assets.

  2. ​​Smart Contracts:
    A smart contract requires the user to pay with cryptocurrencies. Where using regular money does not require any knowledge in regards to how it was made, smart contracts need the user to have prior knowledge about cryptocurrencies.

    For example, a user may need to know about their private wallet key or how much a transaction fees costs. Since cryptocurrencies are decentralized, and there is no banking option — users mostly have to look after these responsibilities on their own.

  3. Centralized vs. Decentralized Transactions:
    There are necessary tradeoffs that occur when building a payment platform on a decentralized platform. For example, public blockchains like Bitcoin and Ethereum can only handle 7 and 20 transactions per second (TPS) respectively. Visa, a centralized payment network, can handle 24,000 TPS in comparison. Since the beginning, cryptocurrencies have been designed to sacrifice scalability in favor of security and decentralization.

    These innovations have led us to reimagine what role money plays in our society while also giving individuals unprecedented financial freedom. Bitcoin, when it was first released in 2009, gave us the ability to transact pseudonymously with anyone in the world without the need for trusted intermediaries. On the other hand, the fees for bitcoin transactions have often been more expensive than all other centralized alternatives. Another hassle for users is that the volatility in prices has resulted in a currency that is not ideal for buying or selling of goods and services.

  4. Security Risk and Regulation Issues:
    Dealing with cryptocurrency comes with a lot of risks. With all details being stored in a digital wallet there is always the potential of a hacker threat looming over the user. With no central body monitoring it, users are unable to file a claim with anyone in case of a breach. Designers need to create applications that will make users feel safe and also trust the product.

    Government agencies are still trying to figure out a proper way to enforce the legal use of cryptocurrencies and decentralized apps that are based on the blockchain.

    Despite aiming to improve the current commerce system, the system is also being used fraudulently by different people. The current model of blockchain without any regulation offers users a peek into the days before banking.

    As an unregulated marketplace, it is prone to hackers who may entice new users to share vital information such as private key details. Also, beginners are likely to make costly mistakes such as sending a money transaction to an incorrect address.

    UX designer would have to find a way to design smart contracts so that they can improve on the technology to make it more secure for users.

    A possible way to counter this problem could be to activate two-factor authentication (2FA) to keep accounts secure. While it should not be forced upon the users, it can be implemented in situations that are security sensitive, such as transferring funds.

  5. Readability:
    Currently, crypto wallet addresses are a string of 40 characters. Even though researchers are still looking to experiment with simpler alternatives such as ENS (Ethereum Name Service), which is easier to read for the user.

    Right now, when sending a transaction, a user is required to double-check the 40 characters in the crypto wallet. It is essential to get it correct in the very first time, as unlike in standard transactions there is no option for a refund.

While blockchain-related companies are investing a lot of money in marketing, and visual design not many of them are focused on improving the UX aspect. According to Ivan Braun, founder of Icons8, “usability” could be the undoing of blockchain technology.“What will destroy Bitcoin? Governments? Hackers? Winklevoss twins? Usability,” he wrote in his blog post.

Users are still apprehensive when committing to the technology, with the general perception being that it is very code-centric. The skepticism that comes with it is natural. And, in many ways is similar to how other technologies initially began as a project driven by research before evolving to accommodate design, blockchain may also take the same route.