Cryptocurrency Mass Adoption: Why Design Is The Missing Link

Opinion | January 14, 2019 By:

In 1976, Steve Wozniak, Steve Jobs, and Ron Wayne designed a single-board computer dubbed “Apple I,” which is now considered to be one of the first concrete examples of the home computers we use today. At the time, home computing was a very niche space — one that was mostly inhabited by tech experts and computer hobbyists.

As a result, only 200 machines were manufactured. However, the newly-formed Apple had grander ambitions and, following subsequent Apple II and Apple III models, the company created the Macintosh — an updated, “user-friendly” version of its predecessors that was designed to feel more like a home appliance and less like an industrial machine.

Now, 35 years later, the Macintosh is largely considered to have pioneered the mass adoption of home computing. So what happened? Why did the Macintosh achieve success where previous Apple computers failed? In short: User experience (UX).

It’s safe to say that Apple has mastered the UX dilemma. However, we’re starting to see similar obstacles appear in a new tech industry that’s similarly struggling to bring cutting-edge innovation to the everyday consumer — cryptocurrency.

Over the past decade, cryptocurrencies and the mechanism supporting them, blockchain technology, have gained international acclaim for being a secure and transparent alternative to centralized national currencies and their attendant vulnerabilities. This rapid growth has made multinationals, from Paypal to Overstock, sit up and take notice and, as a result, there are now 14,141 storefronts worldwide (at time of writing) that accept purchases in cryptocurrency.

Certainly, this is welcome news for the future of the industry. However, akin to the days of the early computer, cryptocurrency is still, for many, a relatively unfamiliar field that introduces new paradigms. Without a concerted focus on UX design, it’s uncertain when the technology’s full benefits will be realized.

It’s often said that the key to a great UX is the ability to hide the complexity of the product you’re using. It’s consolidation of the finer intricacies of a product’s backend to ease the preliminary understanding of a front-facing interface. Unfortunately, it’s a lesson most cryptocurrency projects overlook by making UX an afterthought during product development.

As time goes on, and functions become more complex, many otherwise promising cryptocurrency projects are finding it increasingly difficult to shield new users from the developer side of their platforms. It’s at this stage that the tech-averse customers, already confused and discouraged, are likely to get frustrated and give up, leading to countless missed opportunities to retain new users.

Making these important connections, whether it be by assigning names to public keys or hiding the complexity of private keys, will substantially aid in user comprehension. If the interface isn’t clear, users simply won’t want to use it, which will thwart any chance of achieving mass adoption.   

So how do you account for this divide? Cryptocurrency companies must begin by making UX a formative part of the development process from a protocol’s initial conceptualization to its ultimate release. Many blockchain developers, in a race to remain competitive, operate under the misguided notion that they should build strong protocol first followed by a poorly structured UX after the fact. This is a crucial mistake.

UX layers built on top of already-established consensus mechanisms are far more likely to be confusing to potential users, who struggle to see their value as a result. It is far more difficult to strengthen the design of a protocol that’s fundamentally flawed to begin with. And unlike any industry before it, poor UX in cryptocurrency applications can lead to the irreversible loss of a person’s monetary holdings.

Consider the role of the private key. For many prospective users, this long alphanumeric string is a major scare factor inhibiting participation in the industry. It’s an intimidating prospect to new users. Never before has a long string of letters and numbers been so important to a user’s monetary holdings, yet so difficult to recover should they lose it.

Faced with the unknown, users are understandably wary of placing their capital in wallets or exchanges that don’t provide adequate account recovery services. Some may think that this is predominantly a security issue (and it certainly is), but it’s also a UX issue as well. In order to succeed, cryptocurrency projects must alleviate the pressure placed on users to be responsible for their private key. If, for some reason, a user misplaces their account credentials, these same projects must have a comprehensive contingency plan that’s both forgiving and easily accessible in the event of the unexpected.

Granted, a platform’s UX is only as good as how it interacts within the broader ecosystem. As such, interoperability should be a top priority for emerging projects looking to appeal to new users. Many cryptocurrency companies focus too heavily on building their own platform and fail to consider ways to integrate with other wallets or exchanges — severely limiting product functionality.

Say, for example, that you’re trying to send bitcoin to another party but inadvertently send your payment to a Litecoin address. Or worse, imagine sending cryptocurrency to another user without realizing the transaction fee required to facilitate the exchange from one wallet to another. It’s a simple distinction that can lead to cryptocurrency being lost indefinitely, deterring prospective users for fear of meeting the same fate. Had these platforms been created with more attention to user integration, it’s a problem that could have been avoided altogether.

Some companies are already setting an important precedent here. Cryptocurrency exchange Shapeshift has laid the groundwork for an accountless, instant exchange API which, when integrated with a cryptocurrency wallet, provides users with a comprehensive user experience. The Foundation for Interwallet Operability, otherwise known as FIO, is leading the charge for UX in cryptocurrency by making public addresses easier to understand.

At Edge, we’ve worked to remove the complexity of private key management by hiding it behind familiar account credentials. Once you create a username and password, you automatically have encrypted, backed-up keys.

As I reflect on the great strides we’ve taken in cryptocurrency, I’m reminded of the many great tech pioneers — from Apple, to Microsoft, to Google — that have used UX to make their products accessible to all. Very quickly, these great innovators realized that while they had technologies with world-changing potential, they would never break through to mainstream audiences if no one could figure out how to use them.

With cryptocurrency, we’re on the cusp of building an industry with an even stronger UX than our current financial system. And by making its applications just slightly more accessible, we can more easily advocate the benefits of cryptocurrency to communities around the world. Who knows, maybe sooner rather than later, there will be a digital wallet in every household. I certainly believe so.