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User (de)centric design in Web3

All in all, it's just another “de” in the world

Decentralization, democracy, DeFi, dex, degen…🙈 Web3 is hyping us all, and somehow, we keep adding the prefix “de” as a common Web3 good to all of it.

As a product manager, user research came to my attention early in my career. When I joined Web3 seven months ago, not much time passed until I asked myself if there is an extra “de” in this decentralized community and how we can put the user in the center when building web3 products. 

After visiting Devcon in Bogota this autumn, my viewpoint on Web3 products changed significantly. Also, it hyped me to jump into user research more deeply; this is how I want to kick off. Let’s open the topic of user-centric design in Web3 🤓🔎

The curious case of Web3

For many, blockchain technology might seem brand new, and I don’t claim the opposite. However, for the rest, I guess your sleeves are rolled back for quite some time now, and hands-on researching and developing in web3. The fact is that even though blockchain technology has been present since 2008, it is still early in its development. Almost 15 years long development cycle brought so many wonders, yet we don’t have more than 0.5% of software engineers currently developing in Web3 (source). 

Infrastructure grounding: Push the sky away

Even though we have a high general awareness of the Web3 industry, the numbers of builders and users still need to grow. Stat shows that while 90% of Americans have now heard of cryptocurrencies, only 16% have invested in, traded, or used them, according to the Pew Research Center. Also, just 1 in 4 US adults knows what an NFT is, and fewer than 3% own one.

This may be the typical case with any pre-competitive technology. In its early days and even decades, it belonged to its building angels, who understood its tech concepts and tried to develop the necessary infrastructure so the technology could be used in many ways.

Therefore many products built so far were focused on the web3 infrastructure needed to make the playground that, in the future, can be used for different use cases. And thus, from a product standpoint, arises some challenges.

  • Building solution-centric products: so far, building ideas for Web3 were inspired by expanding the tech limits and making impossible things happen. Therefore products made with Web3 are more advanced technological solutions in the hunt for problems that can solve than the other way around. 
  • Building smart contracts or tech-oriented products: zero focus on the users and their experience.
  • The user dilemma: who are we building for? In this early market phase, only devs are the actual users of web3. The legit question is, are there any others besides the devs building it? 

All of this brought us to the point where we can easily conclude that user-centric design, when building products in web3, wasn’t there at all, but also that it was not the right time to be there. However, after Devcon in Bogota, I can say it’s coming, and it goes hand in hand with adoption. 

Web3 and the user experience design

The early stage of technology and general lust for putting Web3 in use ASAP brings many user challenges: complicated terminology, challenging UIs, unexpected fees, security fears, slow transactions, confusing errors, scams, and more. That makes the entry barrier very high and the onboarding process seriously complicated. 

One of my favorite talks from Devcon in the product track was: "The future of Web3 UX" by Sasha Tanase. In her talk, Sasha's bottom line is one crucial fact from today's product building: “70% of the user experience of Web3 dApp or protocol is dictated by smart contracts that are not upgradeable: so it should be flawless from the start.” There is no room for user-centric design or UX at any point earlier than when the product is already made in its functionalities. As in this mass approach, tech is leading innovation. 

Here is how the proces is currently organized:

This makes the whole UX design function simply as cosmetic adjustables that can help how the product UI will look, but not crucially, how it can be more designed toward its user. 

For many Web3 products, the focus is on functionality rather than usability. And here is why: early adopters don’t care for the UX (more details can be found in the remarkable blog of Sakky B here). 

Considering that devs are 2 in 1: the leading builders and the primary users of the products in Web3, products so far didn’t require significant UX; however, with the mass adoption aspiration, that needs to change. 

Let’s fit in the product-market fit

In product building, product-market fit is the most crucial factor of its success. You develop, contribute and lead, bearing in mind that one day your product will be used by thousands of people. But, is it? The guess here is that it is much more critical to address the right pain of the customer and focus on the product’s functionalities than to provide a unique, seamless experience to achieve product-market fit. 

This can work, of course, for some time. When validating ideas, you could quickly test them with a  video demonstration or even a simulation of what your future product will do. However, once the problem-solution fit is figured out, UX becomes an essential part of the life cycle and can significantly influence its adoption curve. 

With pre-competitive technologies, it seems that, right after the early market phase, when we keep the traction of early adopters and solve their problems with the product, a key factor to skip the gap and achieve mass adoption is the user experience it provides. And this can be achieved only through profound user-centric design. 

So the question we are facing now is: Is it too late to be the early adopter of Web3, or is it too early to be the mass adopter of Web3 products?

Knock knock: adoption comes with new use cases

The days in which technological innovation was a challenge to prepare for millions of users in Web3 are gone. We are leaving this era of infrastructure development and entering a period of using web3 for different everyday purposes. Right now, we are all solving the puzzle of expansion of Web3 and mass adoption followed by billions of users joining the Web3 world through dapps.

One of the main stoppers to mass adoption is a high barrier to entry. However, from a user perspective, the main factors for increasing the entry to Web3 gap are

  • Lack of understanding of blockchain technology - its functionalities and flaws. What use cases are the value-adding in which Web3 can contribute to users? What should they be precocious about, how can they be tricked, etc.? 
  • Lack of understanding of Web3 slang and its communication channels - how to stay up to date and understand all the high pace movements in Web3. 
  • Lack of intuitive user solutions or UX at all - no one wants to go through the hassle of remembering text strings to access a product or service.
  • Lack of urgency - as noted in this blog post, “decentralization itself is not actually of immediate practical or pressing importance to the majority of people.”

To empower adoption, we should start focusing on users. From different use cases that can be important and bring value to them to importing users in the process of product building itself. To empower user-centric design, we should:

  • Start with the validation and exploration of the problems of users rather than a tech solution that can be built
  • Dig for user problems in Web3 channels, Discord communities, Twitter, etc.
  • Constantly think about new use cases of existing Web3 technology
  • Dig into web2 projects and look for their alternative application in Web3 technology
  • Work on lowering the Web3 barrier to entry 
  • Think of a product that provides a new experience and new functionality web2 can not offer
  • Keep running user-centric instead of tech-centric design

Decap: just a Web3 word for recap

No matter its competitiveness, it is getting clear that we are entering the timing in which until we make blockchain simple to use and with clear added value to every one of us, most of the people will have no interest in using it. It will automatically stop mass adoption.

To run user-centric products, what is going to be the role of future product development teams is the right synergy between the problem-solution approach and UX. Designers should apply synergic prototyping and design - designing the user experience in parallel with smart contract development by combining explorative and iterative design from Sasha’s approach. Product managers should look for the product-market fit to achieve product adoption - start from idea validation and user research and tackle their needs to empower this. Together they should merge the findings and build user-centric products. 

After 15 years of Web3, we are reaching the final stage of its early development, with the highest industry pace ever, and that Web3 is ready to be used in many different ways. So far, we could only speak of it as some world common dev project fighting for a better world. From now on, all of us should take responsibility for creating projects that address users more than anything else. 



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