Why Designers Need to Start Thinking About Blockchain

Why Designers Need to Start Thinking About Blockchain

Ali Cottong
Jacob Waites
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Blockchain. You’ve heard the word. Perhaps you’ve invested in a digital currency or two. But do you really know what the technology is and why it matters? It all sounds deeply technical—and it is. But it's important to understand this new tool, as it will have a big impact on our lives—radically altering how we live, work, and play.

Blockchain is a relatively new technology that will soon replace the underlying structure for a lot of the applications and services we use today, including systems for managing our finances, tracking our health, and determining how we connect, transact, and communicate with each other.

So, while it’s tempting to write off blockchains as something to leave to the coders, the potential human impact is too big to ignore. There will be user experiences, communications, and other completely new elements that will need to be carefully designed.

At IDEO CoLab, we explore the potential of emerging technologies like artificial intelligence and the Distributed Web by building prototypes in quarterly sprints. A crucial part of our mission is considering human-centered values in the process of building for the future—creating things the world actually needs, not just more technology.

Here are three reasons why designers need to start thinking about blockchain technology today:

1. It’s bigger than just cryptocurrency

Many people are familiar with cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin and Ethereum. (And for those who aren’t, here’s a quick video that explains the basics.) Blockchain is the technology that forms the underlying structure for these digital currencies, and gives them the unique qualities that make them different from conventional lucre like the US Dollar. That structure includes the ability to exchange funds directly with anybody, anywhere in the world, without the need for an intermediary like PayPal, Visa, or Citibank.

But what most people don’t understand yet is that blockchain technology is about so much more than digital coins. At its essence, a blockchain is a new type of digital ledger which records information in a publicly-verified, traceable way across a decentralized network of devices. What this means is information for, say, an app isn’t just stored on a privately-owned server somewhere—it’s stored across multiple devices that communicate with each other to verify user activity, rather than referencing one central authority, like a Wells Fargo or Google.

Blockchains offer a new way of tracking information, and their applications are broad. Not only are they expected to pervade the financial industry, they’re also being integrated into global shipping, parts tracking, digital identity, healthcare, and other systems. In fact, it’s hard to think of an industry that relies on technology that wouldn’t benefit from using a blockchain.

With a potential to reach millions—even billions!—of people, designers need to start thinking about how they can use their skills to improve the user experience for all of the products and services that will be built on top of this new infrastructure.

2. It will change how humans interact with one another

Blockchain isn’t just a technology, it’s also a state of mind. Well, okay, that might just be the Californian in me talking, but all exaggeration and hype aside, blockchains are going to have a big impact on our culture too.

We’ll come to expect new things from our relationships with other people and parties, based on how blockchains manage our digital interactions. Mirroring the open, accessible code structure, people will expect the companies they do business with are open and accessible as well.

Consumers will demand more information about the goods and services they purchase. Companies will be held to a higher standard of data security.

Trust will become perhaps the most important design element in any system.

Imagine a world where all interactions are more egalitarian, transparent, and traceable—what would that look like? How might we design for this new world view?

(Check out this talk from CoLab’s Gavin McDermott to learn more about the 10 key landmarks of the decentralized web movement.)

3. Technology needs design more than ever

Our world is changing at lightspeed. As new technologies and tools are released daily, it’s easy to get caught up in the rapid pace without stopping to think about the human impact of what we’re creating.

We have a tendency to think of code and algorithms as neutral tools, but they’re not. Technology is neither good nor bad, it's how we apply it that matters. Everything we create has a human imprint on it—our assumptions, hopes, and fears are built into the systems we design (the bias in algorithms has been getting a lot of ink lately).

That’s why, moving forward, we’re going to need a group of people that advocate for the human experience—and human rights—as we develop these technologies. Especially right now, as emerging technologies like blockchain begin to take form, it’s important for designers to have a voice in that process from the very beginning.

How do you envision the designer's role evolving alongside blockchain developers? Let us know on Twitter or Instagram #blockchaindesign

Looking for ways to get started designing for blockchains? Check out this list of quick prototyping tools for emerging technologies from IDEO CoLab.

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Ali Cottong
Ali is a content strategist with roots in telling stories for deep tech. She originally earned her nerd cred as a former world-class Quidditch player and has competed in the Quidditch World Cup twice. Ali currently lives in Oakland and has traded in her broomstick for a bike.
Jacob Waites
Jacob Waites is a visual & interaction designer. With a background in product design and development, he likes to build digital projects that are paired with physical forms and experiences.

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