Ethereum, accessibility, & adoption
There’s always been an ever-growing divide between those who have access and those who are left out. We risk that happening again in the cryptocurrency space between those who have access to and an understanding of decentralized platforms, and those who don’t. At the Ethereum Community Conference (EthCC) in Paris, Samsung NEXT technical director Ricardo J. Méndez explained why this state of affairs could prove perilous to those users just coming into the nascent industry.
Decentralized applications have the potential to change the lives of disadvantaged people around the world, including those in depressed economies, but Méndez warned that developers but don’t always have these potential users in mind.
Using the blockchain, programmable money can move around the world freely, bringing financial support where it is needed. But the availability of a decentralized solution does not necessarily equate with accessibility, Méndez said. Just because a tool is downloadable doesn’t mean that people will understand how or why they should use it.
Méndez used a personal example to illustrate the point, recalling how his parents grappled with financial challenges during his childhood in Costa Rica when that nation’s currency plummeted.
“In their situation, I don’t think I would have a lot of mental bandwidth at the end of the day for sorting out Bitcoin vs. Ethereum vs. zCash,” he said. With a growing gap between most non-technical users and the developers that build cryptocurrency tools, it’s almost as though they are speaking different languages, he said.
To avoid these pitfalls, Méndez recommended developers focus on solving problems for users rather than just developing technology for technology’s sake. While solving technical problems is important, building solid backend code alone won’t by itself persuade people to use their products.
Instead, he insisted developers should view code simply as a means to an end. Blockchain developers, he said, need to ask themselves: “What real-world problem are you hoping to solve with the technology you’re creating?” Even better, he said quoting Bruce Lawson, “you should see people, not problems.”
Answering those questions requires developers to expand their way of thinking. Users across the world exist in dramatically different circumstances and face dramatically different situations. Developers can better understand these problems by understanding their users first because problems don’t manifest the same way everywhere.
This alone isn’t enough to create relevant software, though; developers must also consider usability. All too often, Mendez explained, developers focus on building rock-solid, reliable software, but ignore the user experience (UX), which can kill a project. After all, the most reliable software program is one that the user never bothers to open.
“When all you have is an obsession with computer science everything looks like a systems architecture problem,” he said, recounting his early years developing end-user tools. Méndez focused entirely on system reliability and didn’t think about user interfaces. “The obvious thing to have done here was to have someone along whose only focus was usability so that we could keep both in mind. This is common sense now, but… I don’t think we even used the word back then.”
A UX designer can help with usage flow, wireframing and design, while a developer can connect user-relevant designs to reliable code.
Understanding is key
User experience is important, but gaining user understanding may be the hardest challenge of all. Méndez noted that many people are using decentralized software without an understanding of its basic concepts, so it’s important for developers not to dumb things down – instead, they should strive to help users understand why they should care.
“We can’t just tell them we give them control of their data,” he said. “We need to explain what that means, and what the tradeoffs are because a system you can use but don’t understand isn’t accessible — it’s a conceptual black box.”
Users must be able to understand basic blockchain concepts, such as the immutability of transactions and the potential inability to recover lost keys, especially when dealing with digital money, he told the EthCC audience. They must understand how these concepts affect their everyday use of the software.
This change in thinking is crucial for Ethereum’s development, Méndez explained. Showing a picture of his own parents to the audience, he observed that people who don’t understand the Ethereum value proposition are unlikely to embrace it. “These are just potential users, non-technical people,” he said.
The danger for the Ethereum community is that if it fails to win over the hearts and minds of the mass market, it could lose them to the same kinds of power structures that Ethereum was developed to oppose. Méndez worries about large tech companies that already control large amounts of user data.
The way those companies succeed is by concentrating on surface usability while creating black boxes for their users, which lowers the barrier to entry for users to adopt their services. But right now, Ethereum solutions are open to large and small companies alike.
“Someone will eventually figure out enough usability issues and users will flock in. Most of them will stay with the first solution that actually solves their problems in an easy-to-understand manner,” he said. It’s up to Ethereum’s developer community to win that race.