People are asking for a privacy-focused, more democratic internet. Blockchain is the answer. But it’s not catching on. This is why.
Blockchain is the stepping stone towards a more democratic internet. It can foster the adoption of a user-centric web where users fully own their data, identity and digital assets. Its aim is to provide an interface for anyone to access, own and manage their own digital lives in a decentralized web.
Blockchain represents the original dream of an independent and free internet.
When the World Wide Web became publicly available in 1991, everyone believed in its transformative, democratizing and revolutionary powers. John Perry Barlow, a cyberlibertarian political activist, published “A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace” in 1996. In it, he declared cyberspace a global social space independent of the “tyrannies the government seeks to impose.” He believed the internet to be a collective space with its own governance; a space “without privilege or prejudice accorded by race, economic power, military force, or station of birth”; “a world where anyone, anywhere may express their beliefs without fear of being coerced into silence or conformity.”
This now seems like a naïve utopian fantasy.
With time, the internet has taken a wayward turn and become what many call an “oppressive, centralized” force. In recent years the public has voiced its unrest concerning governmental overreach online (think: Snowden) as well as social media websites’ large-scale data collection (think: Facebook and Google). We all now know the saying about free social media sites, “If you’re not paying for it, you are the product.” Globally, people are fighting for their privacy and online autonomy, and in countries such as China and Russia, for their online freedom.
Some controversial public figures, such as Julian Assange, are finding their own methods to undermine the alarming centralized powers that are “controlling” the internet — the people who determine what we can and cannot know, and how we use the internet. Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks, created the Public Library of U.S. Diplomacy, which holds over 2 million records of U.S. confidential, or formerly confidential diplomatic communications.
But this is not a long-term, global solution.
Internet use and services based on blockchain, on the other hand, could provide meaningful change. They could provide a collective and free online space independent from government. They could decentralize and democratize the Internet. Blockchain allows for innovative solutions that involve collaboration and transparency.
Blockchain and all its related services such as blockchain-based decentralized apps (DApps) have a UX problem.
Generally speaking, the adoption of a consumer technology is dependent on convenience. For now, blockchain services are not faring well on that front.
Here is why:
1. What’s the benefit of using blockchain anyway?
One of the main problems is that for the average internet user, there are many technical and technological barriers to overcome to use blockchain services. To add, most users are perfectly happy with their current non-blockchain services. In order for people to use blockchain services, there must be a distinct user benefit or a problem with the current service.
For instance, if Facebook’s collecting and selling of personal data is seen as a problem, people will be more inclined to use the more complex blockchain equivalent.
2. Not everyone is a tech genius
Another issue is that blockchain user interfaces aren’t designed in a way so that everyone understands it. Blockchain requires that you have in-depth knowledge about it in order to use it. If you don’t know how it works, it is easy to get screwed over. Learning the basics of blockchain is not accessible and easy and finding a starting point difficult because most information is aimed at tech-savvy people such as software developers or cryptocurrency experts.
3. The UX is bad
As you may have guessed by now, the UX design of blockchain services is not great. Very little user research is being done in this field because of it’s so technical and young.
“The majority of developers of blockchain services focus on functionality, maintenance and stability. Usability, efficiency and accessibility are less in focus.” (Glomann et al.)
4. The password problem
An extremely important yet under-advertised technicality of blockchain is that resetting passwords is absolutely impossible. This is due to the underlying technology of decentralized technologies which means there is no central authority to allow that technicality. Losing a password means never being able to access the user account again. All the information and value storage, like holdings of cryptocurrencies, will be inaccessible for its owner. Therefore, all services and apps must be very transparent about this issue as it can be a huge risk, especially for newcomers in the field.
Another issue? Passwords tend to be a long string of random small and capital letters and numbers cobbled together. Yup, people tend to misspell those types of things.
Additionally, several blockchain services and apps require cryptocurrencies in order to use certain applications based on a cryptocurrency ecosystem.
So what’s the solution?
To put it succinctly, blockchain-based services must offer a distinct user benefit, have a focus on learnability, be conveniently accessible and its constraints must be turned into assets.
As mentioned earlier, blockchain services allow for more privacy, autonomy and freedom on the internet. By making people aware about the lack of these standards in traditional centralized internet services, the characteristics of blockchain services are likely to be understood as personally valuable.
Information and training sessions for various degrees of knowledge should be offered for general inquiries as well as for specific platforms. For example, there should be courses about using cryptocurrency exchanges for beginners, advanced users and experts.
User flows should be improved so that people instinctively learn how to use blockchain services. Clear and detailed explanations should be given instead of direct orders. For example, the mechanisms behind why passwords cannot be lost nor recuperated should be explained, instead of just telling users not to lose their password. Common difficulties for first-time users of cryptocurrency exchange services should be identified in order to ensure better tutorials.
Registration for blockchain services would be hugely simplified if done through a centralized mainstream platform like Microsoft or Apple.
In general, more research on blockchain UX needs to be done. Basically, the field needs more funding and more people.
Using Blockchain services should be like driving a car.
Our team member Max Schmid made a brilliant analogy between blockchain services and cars. In an ideal world, user interfaces are designed so everyone understands them. Cars do this well. Most people can learn how to drive a car pretty easily even though they don’t know how all the parts and mechanical functions come together to propel the car forward. Blockchain services should aim to do the same. They should be easy to use even though the processes behind them are complicated.
To top it all off: there has yet to be any clear consensus on the definition of blockchain. As The Verge simply put it, “blockchain is meaningless.” The term, which at first only described the technology behind the cryptocurrency Bitcoin, has come to mean a myriad of very different, often opposing things. For example, some define blockchain as inherently public and decentralized but many blockchains are based on centralized infrastructure and are not publicly accessible.
Most importantly, however, it is important to note that blockchain is not only associated to cryptocurrencies.
Many blockchain services, such as games and alternative social media platforms, exist without an associated cryptocurrency.
One example is the blockchain game developed by Axiom Zen that allows players to purchase, collect, breed and sell virtual cats: CryptoKitties. This gaming platform is not a cryptocurrency. Instead it operates on Ethereum’s underlying blockchain network, as a non-fungible token (NFT) unique to each CryptoKitty. Each CryptoKitty is unique and owned by the user, validated through the blockchain, and its value can appreciate or depreciate based on the market. CryptoKitties cannot be replicated and cannot be transferred without the user’s permission even by the game developers. Users can interact with their CryptoKitties, having the ability to buy, sell, and sire (breed) them.
CryptoKitties is also a great example of how blockchain can promote a freer, more democratic internet. As CryptoKitties shared on a Medium blog post:
“With blockchain, an individual can own their experience and shape it as they see fit. An independent developer can create a complementary experience to a core concept like CryptoKitties without giving us a dime. And all of this makes the core experience better for everyone.”