The Importance of UX for Crypto End User Adoption

The Importance of UX in Crypto End User Adoption

User experience (UX) in crypto products is generally poor for a simple reason: there simply isn’t that much investment going into it.

Investment goes mostly into cryptography and technical research and backend engineering. Even front ends for blockchain based applications are often “just enough to get the job done.”

I start with this observation because we are all concerned about end user adoption of crypto-based applications. Long-term end-user adoption of any application is heavily determined by the UX of that application. I have this view after spending a significant amount of time building Web2 products.

The Amplification of UX Through Web 2.0

The pivotal moment for me was sometime around 2010 when I met someone from the Google UX research team.

Up until that time I, like most other people I knew, thought about releases in terms of features. What features are getting shipped in this release? I thought of the end-user pieces as “user interface” or “front end.” Just features that needed to be shipped.

This Google UX researcher described the process that they went through as part of shipping Android releases. Even back then, their process had an extensive UX component.

UX research and testing included bringing in groups of random people off the street, giving them pre-configured Android handsets, and then capturing video and timing data while the subjects performed various tasks. Things like “schedule a meeting,” and “call this number.” Then they would capture data about where the people tapped, how long it took them to complete the tasks, what the most frequent mistakes were, etc.

They would analyze this data and iterate the UX, moving buttons, making things more prominent, and then re-run the tests with a fresh set of people and compare the resulting data sets. This was just one part of their UX research effort

I remember being completely blown away once I understood the depth of the effort Google was putting into the UX and usability of its products. This focus on providing a great UX is one of the key reasons Apple and Google came to dominate the mobile market.

Advanced UX techniques, such as the one described above, are now commonplace in the Web2 world. Organizationally, there are often discrete design and UX research teams separate from product management and engineering.

One of the things I am struck by in coming from a Web2 environment to the Web3 space is that these design and UX functions are generally minimal or not present at all for many blockchain projects. Cryptocurrency naturally draws in people with economics / finance and software engineering backgrounds, resulting in a heavy weighting within teams towards these kinds of backgrounds. This relative underrepresentation of people with design and UX backgrounds in crypto is one reason for end-user adoption challenges in the space.

Using UX to Reduce the Learning Curve

It doesn’t help that, in crypto, there are a lot of concepts you have to learn to use many of the products. Concepts like accounts, public keys, private keys, signing, block height, finalization, and the list goes on.

But, while learning new concepts is additional friction related to adoption, end users will learn new concepts and mental models as long as they are clear and if there is the proper motivation for doing so.

Operating system concepts like files, folders, and processes were once novel. These concepts, along with their graphical representations, were deliberately chosen to mimic real-world concepts, and thus to help onboard people and help them create the right mental models for working with PCs as they became prevalent.

You can see this idea of real-world mimicry at work in the example below, a screenshot of the original iPad note-taking application:

iPad Notes App UX

Image sourced from this blog:

The resemblance to a physical legal pad is, of course, both totally unnecessary and also quite intentional. It helps the user form the right mental model.

In the early days of the internet, things like URLs, HTTP, FTP, and IP addresses were directly exposed to end-users. Many non-technical people learned to work with these despite the rough edges, because they had to to get on the internet. Conceptual complexity on its own doesn’t mean you will have a poor UX. The key is clarity of the concepts and having the right motivation for end users to want to learn them.

Bringing UX into the Web3 World

Regardless of what the product is, end user adoption of that product will be improved with a better UX. And we will only get better UX if we invest in people that have design and UX expertise. We need to value people with these skills as highly as backend engineers if we are building end-user-facing products.

It can be minimal to start. Take advantage of existing resources for improving UX in crypto. Engage with a freelance UX designer to begin improving your product. (Although, it is best when they are part of the team from the start rather than being brought in to “make it look pretty” at the end. By that point, many of the concepts and user flows have already been established and are difficult to change.)

The importance of software UX for user adoption is one of the key lessons learned from the last 10 years in the Web2 world. My hope is that Web3 builders avoid needing to relearn this and incorporate design and UX as first-class teams and investments into the products they are creating.

Wheels on Luggage: Crypto Mass Adoption is Not a Technology Problem

Wheels on Luggage: Crypto Mass Adoption is Not a Technology Problem

Why isn’t broader crypto mass adoption happening?

At some point, everyone working in the crypto space has asked themselves why mass adoption hasn’t happened. Some common assumptions for why this is the case are that the technology is not mature enough, that it isn’t scalable enough, and that the dev tools are so much worse than web 2.0 tools.

All these things are true, but I would argue that technology is not the only reason for a lack of mass adoption.

Technology is a necessary, but not a sufficient, condition for larger scale adoption. When I hear arguments that crypto mass adoption is primarily a technology problem, I think of a story about suitcases that I once heard Robert Schiller of Yale give in a lecture.

Adding Wheels to Luggage

The story goes like this: the idea of general vacation travel has existed since the mid-19th century, when the advent of larger scale rail and steamship travel made it possible for a broader audience. People since then have needed luggage for their travel.

At first, luggage consisted of trunks. For most of the 20th century, travelers used suitcases that looked something like this:

A traditional suitcase

Image courtesy of Michael Kammerer, Wikipedia

Throughout all the decades of hauling around luggage, it wasn’t until 1972 that Bernard Sadow was granted a patent for putting wheels on a suitcase.

Bernard Sadow's Patent Image of Wheels and a Strap on a Suitcase

Image sourced from the patent listing

An early ad for Bernard Sadow's wheeled suitcase design

Image sourced from this blog















Putting wheels on suitcases seems ridiculously obvious and useful, but adoption for the new rolling suitcase in the 70s was challenging. They were seen as “wimpy” and not masculine enough for men to adopt. And the design had challenges — it tended to fishtail behind you as you dragged it forward, making it hard to maneuver.

These design problems weren’t solved in a satisfactory way until Robert Plath, a Northwest Airlines pilot, had the idea of putting two wheels on the edge of the case with a long telescoping handle. He was granted a patent for the Rollaboard in 1991:

Robert Plath's patented design for a wheeled suitcase with telescoping handle

Image sourced from the patent listing

1991! Think about that for a minute. Isn’t it incredible that people labored to carry around luggage by hand for over 100 years without thinking to put wheels on it?

The key to the Rollaboard’s mass adoption was that Plath specifically targeted flight staff as early adopters. Other travelers would see pilots and flight attendants wheeling their luggage through airports and onto airplanes. This had a two-fold effect: it provided a highly visible showcase for the utility of the technology, but it also helped overcome the stigma by associating it with “professional” travelers.

There are important lessons in this story as we think about mass adoption of crypto, or for any technology for that matter. There is no arguing that the technology (wheel) was well-developed and well-understood by literally everyone. The obvious questions: why did it take 100 years for someone to come up with the idea of putting wheels directly on luggage? And once it was discovered, why were there still adoption challenges? What ultimately was the key to mass adoption?

Is Crypto Heading Toward 100 Years Without Wheels?

This story clearly shows that technology can exist for very long periods of time before anyone thinks to apply it to a particular problem. This application doesn’t happen automatically or inevitably. It can be right in front of you and still not be obvious. It is only obvious in retrospect.

Given this fact, the argument that “we just need to keep building and scaling crypto infrastructure and technology, and that adoption will follow” seems quite wrong. By that logic, we could be waiting 100 years for broader crypto adoption to happen.

Technology is a necessary, but not a sufficient, condition for broader mass adoption of a particular product or solution. For crypto, I would argue that we have already met basic functional product requirements. That the scalability of the technology, while obviously important and needing further work, is not the main challenge we are facing.

What is also needed are changing conditions that make the solution more relevant. In the case of wheeled luggage this was the expansion of air travel and airports where people had to self transport their own luggage over longer and longer distances. For crypto I think this is the increasing digitization of everything we do (software “eating the world”), with value-bearing systems being some of the last systems to have open and natively internet-centric versions. It feels like those conditions are increasingly met.

So what is it that is preventing the mass adoption of crypto that we are all waiting for? I think it boils down to needing a catalyst. Something that will serve the same purpose that the flight crews with their Rollaboards did for wheeled luggage. A scenario involving relatable people of how they use crypto to solve a problem better and more efficiently than other methods.

I’ve spent time thinking about what this scenario would be for crypto, and who the key early adopters could be. I don’t know what the answers are. But I don’t think hodling Bitcoins as a store of value is the catalyst. It has to be something that regular people can relate to, and that can change their existing mental models about how things are supposed to work. My best guess at this point is that Millennials on the other side of an increasing wealth gap will drive this change. Maybe DeFi and the returns it can generate over and above existing investments can act as a catalyst. But whatever it ends up being, I’m entirely confident that it will happen.