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Why we need better blockchain content design

Curious about content design but wondering WTH “blockchain” even means? Read this article for a quick primer.

The blockchain community is waking up to the fact that content design is crucial in product development. However, many blockchain teams today, even those with hundreds of millions or billions of dollars behind them, conduct their content design either as an afterthought or without a solid understanding of core content design principles.

Here are three unique challenges (and opportunities) for UX writers working in blockchain:

  1. There is an abundance of new terminology and a lack of standardization.
  2. The usability of most blockchains is slow and cumbersome.
  3. Protecting users’ funds from hacks or user error is vital but hard to do.

If you’re working in an industry or technology using new, innovative terms, or with different expectations from the average software experience, you can leverage these potential solutions for your work, too.

Challenge #1: An abundance of new terminology and a lack of standardization

People who work in blockchain throw terms around like DeFi, Proof-of-Stake, hard fork, and consensus algorithm as casually as a Hawaiian shirt on Friday. And it’s easy to start thinking that everyone knows what they mean if you’re inside the crypto bubble. But step outside of that bubble, and you quickly realize most people have no idea what these words represent.

A large part of entering into the blockchain realm as a first-timer is embarking on a long journey of self-education, and part of that education is uploading a whole new vocabulary into your brain. The attitude people in blockchain have taken so far while building digital products has been more or less sink or swim. Education is up to the user. That approach is fine for savvy early adopters. But as crypto goes more mainstream, the user interface and the user experience (UI & UX) need to better meet users where they are, and often that’s at the very beginning of their journey.

UX writers working in blockchain have an opportunity to use carefully crafted words as a bridge that can transition people from blockchain n00bs to crypto veterans as painlessly and empathetically as possible.

One way to do this is through the standardization of terms across the industry. To see how and why this is a problem worth tackling, let’s look at one term that I’ve counted at least eight different names for: seed phrase.

According to Coinbase,A seed phrase is a series of words generated by your cryptocurrency wallet that give you access to the crypto associated with that wallet.”

However, depending on which product or exchange you’re on, the “seed phrase” might also be called a: mnemonic phrase, mnemonic seed, backup phrase, 12-word recovery phrase, secret recovery phrase, 12-word phrase, or secret 12-word recovery phrase. For new users, this isn’t very clear. Recently, I’ve noticed projects with large user bases like Coinbase and MetaMask moving to standardize on one term: secret recovery phrase. This is an excellent choice because it emphasizes two critical aspects of the term itself—to keep it secret and that it can be used to recover your address if, for any reason, you lose access to it.

Choosing descriptive and intuitive terms and standardizing them across the industry will go a long way in helping people have a consistent experience across different blockchain applications. 

Challenge #2: Most blockchains are slow and cumbersome

This is more a reality of the current state of the technology rather than a pure UI/UX challenge. Nevertheless, it makes building blockchain products difficult and frustrating for users—so, it’s a clear usability challenge. Transaction wait times can be several minutes long, and sometimes, they don’t complete at all. They might end up canceled or timed out.

In Ethereum, fees can be expensive and can change often depending on the network demand. Product teams should communicate this to the user.

The UX will become easier to build as the technology becomes more scalable, secure, and fast. Product surfaces in blockchain are already starting to catch up to what users expect when using a web-based application. This trend will continue until there is seamless integration between standard internet-based applications and decentralized blockchain apps.

As UX writers, we can communicate when transactions are pending, slow, canceled, or timed out. We can also make recommendations to users about optimizing their transaction fees by leveraging information about the network from the backend and surfacing it in the UI.

Here is an example of how MetaMask gives users the ability to throttle their transaction fees to get slower or faster settlement times depending on the price they are willing to pay.

Communicating to users why certain things work more slowly or require more steps than a typical non-blockchain web-based application can help set expectations and inform users about the steps they can take, if any, to mitigate it. 

Challenge #3: Protecting users’ funds from hacks or user error is vital but hard to do

Let’s take the following real-world example to illustrate how and why this is difficult and ways content design can lend a hand.

Below is an alert message in the Polkadot Substrate Portal. Polkadot is one of the largest blockchains with a market cap of $25 billion. The Substrate Portal is a UI where people can contribute their crypto to support new blockchains looking to enter the Polkadot network.

Alert message in the Polkadot Substrate Portal
Alert message in the Polkadot Substrate Portal

To give some perspective, the total value of crypto locked behind this portal is in the hundreds of millions of dollars. Polkadot is trying to protect users’ funds from bad actors that could steal their funds—or from well-intentioned teams with security flaws that could lead to lost or stolen funds.

As well-meaning as Polkadot is in showing this alert—from a content design perspective—there are several things to take issue with here. I’ve broken down what I’ve identified as the main issues.

My goal here is to use a specific example to highlight a general problem, and I should point out that I think Polkadot is a groundbreaking blockchain. So this isn’t a jab against them specifically. I’ve chosen this example because it happens to represent the type of content design you’ll often encounter in blockchain UIs.

Alert message issues

  • The first sentence, “Do not transfer funds directly to a specific account,” conflates “funds” with Kusama (KSM)— the specific cryptocurrency that’s required. Since Kusama is the only crypto accepted here, calling it “funds” muddies the waters and could lead users to think they can send other types of crypto like BTC or ETH to crowdloan teams—which they cannot.
  • Additionally, the first sentence also tells users not to transfer funds “to a specific account that is associated with a loan or a team.” But many legitimate projects are hosting separate websites with user-friendly UIs designed to make it easier for users to contribute. This sentence sends mixed signals to users and interrupts marketing efforts conducted by crowdloan teams.
  • Very few people know what “crowdloan runtime module” or “runtime” means—it’s best to avoid obscure terms like these altogether.
  • It doesn’t explain the difference between a fund being “dissolved,” “expiring,” or “ending.” How will users know how to parse this information?
  • It vaguely alludes to the risk of sending funds to accounts outside of this portal but doesn’t explicitly state those risks, for example, “scammers,” “hacks,” “phishing attempts,” “buggy code.” We should give the user a precise understanding of the specific risks associated with making contributions outside this portal so they can make an informed judgment.

Potential alert message fixes

As a UX writer, I would make this crucial messaging clear and jargon-free by breaking it into different parts. I’d want to reduce cognitive load and improve content hierarchy. I would add a headline that grabs the user’s attention and body text that ends with a CTA.

Something like:

Adding a secondary CTA “Learn more” could bring users to a Polkadot Help article explaining crowdloans and how they work.

Putting an FAQ directly underneath the alert with progressive disclosure to show answers to common questions when clicked is another way to bring in added clarity.

Something like:

FAQs

+ What happens if a parachain I supported doesn’t win the auction?

+ The parachain I want to support has a separate website for accepting contributions. Should I contribute on their website or in this portal?

+ Can I use other cryptocurrencies like ETH or BTC to contribute?

Conclusion 

Content design can go a long way to guide users through a product experience by:

  1. Distilling complexity down to its essential parts.
  2. Constructing sentences that are understandable and clear to help users take the next indicated in-product action to accomplish their goals.

Crypto companies like Coinbase, which recently went public on the New York Stock Exchange at a $100 billion valuation, understand the value of content design and are actively hiring content designers, according to LinkedIn.

It’s only a matter of time before the broader blockchain ecosystem recognizes and acknowledges the crucial role content designers play in creating new digital products—a need compounded by the overwhelming amount of jargon that creates hurdles to usability and hampers adoption.

For all the crypto captivated content designers out there reading this, my advice would be to make a case for your utility and the benefits your skills can bring to the table. Most engineers and VCs aren’t clued into the importance words play in a product’s success or failure. Through data, user research, and high-quality content design, it’s our job to earn a seat at the table and help the industry onboard the next generation of participants.

Hunter Gebron is a contract content designer at Facebook. Connect with him on LinkedIn!


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