I’ll admit it. I’m intimidated by blockchain. I started working in the space a couple of years ago and I’m still at advanced-beginner status. It’s an unfamiliar feeling: I’ve faced dozens of new technologies and domains over my 20+-year UX career, but it’s never felt like this.
I’m also totally unintimidated. I know I can bring value to any blockchain project that has users.
There are several good reasons UX people are intimidated by blockchain. If you’re one of those people, this article is here to validate you. It’s also here to remind you that there are a lot of reasons you should not be intimidated, and that you should start to learn more about blockchain now.
Why UXers are intimidated by blockchain.
Blockchain is hard.
Typically, when we face new technologies, it’s kind of like a Spanish-speaker finding themselves in France. We can get by. For example, mobile UIs were originally adaptations of screen UIs. We found our way, used what we knew and quickly added value.
Blockchain feels like being a fluent Spanish-speaker who finds themselves on the planet Vulcan. There are no easy waypoints, useful similarities are few and far between, and it’s incredibly disconcerting (and vaguely threatening) to be the only one in the room who doesn’t understand.
To design for the internet, you don’t have to know how packets work. But to break into blockchain, at least in the near term, you do have to know some of the technology, because the technology and the value of things built on that technology are deeply intertwined. Also, many blockchain UIs will have to communicate at least a little of how blockchain works to users, especially if the product deals in the worlds of trust, identity, or finances. Fortunately, you don’t have to know everything about blockchain, which seems impossible.
Blockchain is huge.
There’s a reason people say that blockchain has the potential to disrupt the internet: it does. Blockchain is already changing things as huge as ‘money’ and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Cryptocurrencies are to blockchain as email is to the internet: just one of the many things made possible by an enormous system. The scale of the potential, and the fact that all of that potential is built on a giant new infrastructure, makes the domain feel unmanageable to newcomers.
Did we really need to reinvent money? Who knows. But it’s happening. The zeitgeist of blockchain is that everything might need reinventing, including the software design and development process. Startups are trying to build something new, and they are trying to build that thing in a brand new way. Blockchain is an enormous, exciting hammer. Of course everything looks like a nail.
It can be challenging when you’re bringing advice and methods that are in any way ‘old,’ and that includes best practices, heuristics, user testing, iterative design…you name it. UX is used to being a new-ish kid on the block. It’s weird to hear that some of our advice feels archaic in the insanely fast and ultra-cutting-edge world of blockchain.
It’s also weird to work on projects trying to fix things that aren’t broken by creating products users haven’t asked for.
Blockchain people can be intimidating.
People who thrive at the far reaches of a frontier aren’t always interested in helping newbies catch up. It’s more fun to be an intrepid explorer than it is to be a patient guide. Patience is not among the top valued traits of blockchain enthusiasts, which is one reason the whole field is so dynamic and intense.
Why UXers should not be intimidated by blockchain.
Lots of blockchain products and services are for human beings.
The tech may be huge and unprecedented, but humans are not, and we know a lot about humans. Anyone trying to build solutions for consumers or businesses is eventually going to discover that people change a lot slower than technology, no matter how cool (or how much ‘better’) the technology is.
We are very good at actively-not-knowing new things.
In my consulting work, new clients ask “have you worked in <finance/healthcare/whatever>?” Often my answer is “no, and that’s a good thing.” Not having domain expertise can help us with our work. We are also trained to be active-in-not-knowing; we pay close attention to the impact of ignorance on end to end experiences. We also tune in to the experience of learning in any new domain.
We are very good at explaining the value of what we do.
All of us have sold the value of our work. It’s become much easier over the last 20 years. When I was getting started, there was a huge amount of work and debate over the ROI of user-centered design. It’s time for us to reignite that debate and refresh our arguments. We are more capable of doing so than ever before.
We have a little time to catch up.
Blockchain needs UX immediately, but it’s not ready for everything UX entails. There’s a huge rush to launch new products: this is the latest gold-rush of the tech world. I believe that the heyday for blockchain UX is months if not years into the future, because a chunk of the industry will have to experience some failure first-hand before they are willing to slow-down-to-speed-up, which is at the heart of what we do.
It’s hard, but it’s not impossible.
I know enough now to get the gist when I hear new product or service ideas. I’ve also gotten used to saying ‘I don’t know what that means’ and sensing the temperature drop. It’s not fun, but I remind myself of something I know for sure: if I don’t understand something, it means lots of other people won’t understand it. The value I bring to blockchain teams is that I know how to help people get it, whatever “it” is. And so do you, because you bring your own highly-valuable UX expertise wherever you go, whether or not you completely understand the domain.
We can do this, and we must. Users need us.
Have you ever seen truly passionate Star Trek fans? There are people who have learned to speak Vulcan, and they are clearly having a great time. That’s because they love the strange new worlds and chances to express themselves in new ways. Blockchain is not going to be our final frontier in UX; there will always be new ones. You are experienced explorers. Boldly go there.
(And don’t worry so much: you can always foran until you have kau.)
I heard a really good analogy that the blockchain UX thus far has been focussed on the back of the TV with lots of different types of sockets but obviously the front of the TV is where discovery and exploration take place. In many ways we’re still working out what standard connections to put on the back.
Taking that analogy further, the vast majority of people don’t really understand what’s happening at the back of the TV anyway, and once simple, and widely adopted standards emerge, we can start to focus on the front of the TV.