Designing for Blockchain: Three Ways to Get Started

Designing for Blockchain: Three Ways to Get Started

Tara Tan
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Despite all the media hype about the rise and fall of cryptocurrencies, blockchain technology is still in its infancy, meaning it’s an ideal time for designers to step in and help build new systems. There’s no shortage of challenges to address. Here are three juicy ones to get started thinking more deeply about blockchain, the unique experiences the technology enables, and how it could be integrated into our everyday lives.

1. Designing for ownership

The beauty of cryptocurrency is that it’s possible for you, and only you, to have access to your crypto wallet and assets. That means you get to have true ownership; your “account” information isn’t stored by a bank or central authority that can use or take away your assets at will (think of governments seizing funds, for example). Instead, the data is stored in a universal ledger across a distributed network that can independently verify who owns what—so it’s much more transparent than most of today’s banking systems.

Of course, that power also comes with great responsibility. There is no password or account recovery if you lose or reveal your private key (sometimes expressed in the form of a 24-word phrase), which is used to “unlock” your wallet. Giving that away is like dropping cash on the street—you likely won’t get it back.

An example of a card for writing down the 24-word phrase for recovering your Ledger crypto wallet. You have to write it all down, in the right order… and not lose it.

Challenge: Design secure and user-friendly ways to store private keys.

A few questions to get you started:

  • How might we design better ways to securely store private keys that balance security (keys cannot be easily copied or stolen) and ease of use?
  • What are some digital and physical features for secure storage that we could utilize?
  • How might we design ways to securely transfer ownership of private keys in case of loss or death?

Some inspiration:

  • Fractional Custody: What are some ways you could divide up and distribute private keys among five of your most trusted friends and family members?
  • Book of Codes: Inspired by Jonathan Safran Foer’s Tree of Codes, what if custom die-cut cards could reveal your passphrase when placed over the right book?
  • Multiple Points of Verification: Could you have a mobile app that verifies your identity through multiple social networks before revealing the passphrase?

2. Designing transparency in network transactions

Every time you transact in Ethereum, a platform for blockchain applications, you have to set your gas price—the amount you are willing to pay for the computation needed for your transaction be confirmed. An easy analog is paying more for expedited shipping to get your package mailed there sooner.

Those prices and speeds are not determined by any one party (like FedEx, for instance), but by how busy the network is, how many other transactions are waiting to be confirmed, and what gas price those other transactions are using. But information about current network state is rarely communicated to the user—adding frustration and confusion when setting your best guess at gas price. Too low? Your transaction might not go through for a long time (or ever). Set it too high, and you risk paying more than you need to.

Remember the early days of eBay, before they included shipping rates in transactions? You had to wait for a day or so until the seller got back to you with the actual shipping costs. Sometimes it was what you’d expected, sometimes it bit you in the butt.

What’ll it cost to get it there? Take your best guess...

Challenge: Design better ways to help users make a decision about transaction costs, or find ways to abstract it away all together.

A few questions to get you started:

  • How might we make transaction costs and prices more transparent to the user?
  • How might we reveal high-level and useful data on network status?
  • How might we better automate gas estimates to remove friction from decision-making?

Some inspiration:

  • The Slider: Could the user first select their desired transaction speed to reveal its implied cost?
  • The Wallet Just for Gas: Could there be a separate wallet just for transaction costs, which gets topped off at regular intervals?
  • The Toggle: Could you offer the user be a simple choice—speed vs. value?

3. Designing for readability

Crypto wallet addresses currently look something like this: 0x04De111196aCE9764b6eCAcC4f849b6b59193443—a string of 40 characters, which serve the function of being cryptographically unique (i.e. impossible to guess). While there are experiments like ENS, a human-readable domain system for blockchain addresses, they aren’t widely adopted yet. Sending a crypto transaction today means checking and double-checking 40 characters that look like gobble-de-gook. And you need to get it right the first time, since there are no refunds or rollbacks for crypto transactions.

That’s like having to type in the bank account number of every merchant or person you’d like to transact with, every single time. If it’s off by one digit—cue instant regret.

The challenge: Design ways to display blockchain addresses in a more readable or recognizable format.

A few questions to get you started:

  • How might we use algorithmically-generated images or symbols to create visual recognizability?
  • Are there industry standards (like checksums) that could help reduce errors in address entry?

Some inspiration:

  • Cryptographic Visual Tags: How might we use unique color codes or symbols to tag address typologies or to verify addresses?
  • 4-Digit Verifications: What are some industry standards that financial institutions use that could be relevant for these addresses? One such example is typing in the last 4 digits of a credit card number to verify ownership.
  • Whitelist of Verified Addresses: Are there ways to maintain a registry of trusted addresses without relying on a central authority?

These are just three challenges (ahem, opportunities) that blockchain offers designers—there are (and will continue to be) many more. Have an idea? We’d love to hear it! Tweet your thoughts to @ideocolab.

Interested in collaborating with us on a future project, or got another blockchain-based design challenge you want to talk about? Reach out to IDEO CoLab, IDEO’s collaborative platform for emerging technologies, here or on Twitter!

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Tara Tan
Tara is all-in on bringing design to emerging tech, and is building ventures with blockchain startups and founders at IDEO CoLab. Always backing good design and good humans.
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