Going mainstream: What's broken in crypto and how design can fix it

As an experienced product designer and longtime believer in the disruptive potential of cryptocurrency, I think the industry is in need of a big perspective change before it can achieve mass market appeal.

A brief history of why blockchain is still a novelty

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To explain what’s missing, let me first propose that most crypto projects fall into two main categories: developer-centric projects, and ICO-funded fluff projects.

The former––dev-centric projects––tend to be all about high tech for the sake of tech. It’s enthusiasts making stuff for other enthusiasts. The unspoken motto here is “by geeks, for geeks.” These projects don’t generally have, or want, real product leadership.

The latter––ICOs––tend to be about marketing fluff. Think painful buzzphrases like “tokenize everything” or “dentistry on the blockchain.”

Their common flaw is a crippling lack of connection with the needs and desires of real users who are closer to the classic tech adoption “chasm” that products must cross to reach more than a tiny fraction of the market. These early adopters are more pragmatic than techies. They’re looking for whole products that solve their big problems, and don’t particularly care if it has “infinitely scalable blockchain” in the tagline. In fact, that’s probably a turnoff.

User-Centered Design as the way forward

But there is a third category of crypto project emerging, projects like Steem, which are seeing mass adoption. They’re achieving it by focusing on user experience, not just as a glossy veneer for a landing page, but as a process that guides product development and helps them discover product-market fit.

Steem is a great example of this. Instead of just creating yet another blockchain, they built a proof of concept for the mass market. Steemit is a blogging platform that pays you for creating or finding great content. It’s almost as easy to use as Medium, so users don’t need to know or care how it works, or that it’s built on a DPoS blockchain with “proof of brain,” a creepy phrase that sounds borrowed from Dianetics.

No, users just post content, get votes, and get paid. That’s a great value proposition and the tech is secondary to that.

And this attention Steemit has given to meeting the real needs of a real target audience through UX design is paying off. Steemit has over a million accounts and recently ranked as a top-1000 site in the world according to Alexa. It’s also paid out $40 million in rewards to content creators.

“Go die" - a sobering look inside the status quo

Obviously the business case for UX design is compelling. There’s simply no other way to reach mass adoption and achieve the movement’s ideals. The crypto world needs to embrace that.

But my experience suggests this is going to be an uphill battle.

In a recent survey of the top thirty cryptocurrencies by market cap, I found only two were hiring in UX or product design: Block.one (EOS), and OmiseGo (OMG).

Interactions with the Monero community about UX/product design

Interactions with the Monero community about UX/product design

When I offered UX/product design help to Monero (XMR), I was told by community members to “go die” and “try going door to door.”

Even projects trying to hire UX designers don’t seem to really understand why.

I once had a conversation with a team leader for a top-50 coin who was looking to hire a UX lead. When I suggested UX processes that could help validate new feature development, simplify, and take the product mainstream, he told me the developers decide all on their own. They just wanted someone to move UI controls around.

Depressing. That’s utilizing 2% of UX design’s value proposition, and it reflects how deeply unbalanced even the most forward-thinking crypto teams can be when leaders focus too much on tech instead of empathizing with users.

A new way of thinking

The bottom line is that design is a process for discovering better solutions to problems. As such, it has to be woven into the culture of a team and how they create.

So here’s hoping blockchain learns to stop worrying and love UX. Those are the teams that I think will finally take blockchain mainstream and do a world of good.

Ian Patterson