Value Off the Chain: Blockchain and User Experience

The earliest users of blockchain technology were an unusually sophisticated group: They were members of a “cypherpunk” mailing list with interests in economics, cryptography, and programming. Though Satoshi Nakamoto and his peers imagined a technology that would cross borders and break barriers, its initial implementation wasn’t intended for the typical consumer or the everyday investor. Just as the world’s most elegant and concise raw code is impenetrable to the layman, so too was blockchain forbidding to the less savvy who eventually came to hear of it. In their very first days, it was only natural that blockchain and cryptocurrency should have high intellectual barriers to entry; it’s concerning that one decade on and many billions of dollars in value later these problems should persist.

Though terms like “blockchain,” “bitcoin,” and “cryptocurrency” have begun making frequent appearances in print newspapers, in mainstream magazines, and on cable TV, 80% of people who’ve heard of the technology don’t understand what it is. As more than one analyst has pointed out, blockchain is still searching for its first killer app that’s so powerful, useful, and entertaining that everyone will eventually use blockchain technology in some form, even if they aren’t aware they’re using it. Though we won’t guess what this killer app might be or where it might originate, we will make one prediction: Whatever else the killer app might be, it will, first of all, be easy to use.

Arthur C. Clarke observed that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic;” Steve Jobs billed the first iPhone as “working like magic.” For most observers, blockchain is Clarkean magic: impressive, but inscrutable and a little scary. What blockchain needs is more friendly Jobsian magic; the iPhone’s interface explained itself and quickly revealed its secrets to users. Today, direct control bitcoin wallet, to take just one example, requires the wallet holder to manage two distinct alphanumeric keys, enact near-paranoid security measures, and know the abstruse vocabulary of blockchain — forks and miners and ledgers and Satoshi and satoshis and more. By contrast, it takes five minutes and a credit card to set up Apple Pay on the latest iPhone.

In the 70-odd years that personal computers have existed, they’ve become, paradoxically, both increasingly complex and exponentially simpler to use. The first computers required miles of vacuum tubes and cabinets of punch cards to perform the simplest computations; today’s machines are billions of times faster and require little or no training. Just as clever interfaces and graphics hide the 0s and 1s of binary code, so must future blockchain programs layer over the most difficult or least accessible aspects of program and protocol. A bitcoin wallet address is not self-explanatory in the way that a mouse click, an iOS swipe, or a keyboard stroke is. Though they must not lose sight of decentralization and security, blockchain developers should not let the end user slip their mind. For some products, it’s true, the end user is expected to be a technically sophisticated investor or enthusiast, the sort of person who writes their own code or builds their own computers. Such products may require less close attention to simplicity. But many firms hope for broader appeal; they should not overestimate their proposed audience’s digital fluency or overburden their willingness to learn something new.

For some blockchain enthusiasts, the obscurity and difficulty are part of the technology’s charm: Mastery of the technology is its own reward. The early internet derived some of its glamour from mystery, yet the internet only grew more powerful, more exciting, and more intriguing when regular users gained access. Better design and improved user experience, after all, mean more users with new ideas. Blockchain is already a powerful technology with hundreds of use cases and billions of dollars of value created. What will happen when millions more have the wherewithal to participate in the technology? We can’t wait to see.

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