Steve Ehrlich is an associate and lead analyst at Spitzberg Partners, a boutique corporate advisory that has strategic relationships with firms including Ming Labs and the Wall Street Blockchain Alliance.
Matthias Roebel is CEO of Ming Labs, and Ron Quaranta is chairman of the Wall Street Blockchain Alliance.
In this CoinDesk 2016 in Review special feature, Ehrlich, Quaranta and Roebel argue that a focus on user experience can help blockchain firms better communicate to the mass market in 2017 and beyond.
Most people hear the word blockchain and immediately concede that they may never take advantage of this innovative technology because they cannot "use encryption" or code.
As those of us in the blockchain sector look to 2017 as the year where we begin to move beyond a purgatory of proof-of-concepts and pilots into full product integration, it is crucial to enable would-be users to clear this important mental hurdle.
Fortunately, this is not a new problem for the technology industry.
Ask random people on the street to explain how the Simple Mail Transport Protocol (SMTP) works and you will likely get a blank stare. All that they know is that once they press send, their email gets to its desired recipient within seconds.
What is the significance? It means that users need to stop focusing on how blockchain works and instead focus on its future applications.
In order to get to this point, blockchain applications need to be intuitive to the everyday user, which all comes down to a simple and elegant user experience (UX).
Taking a bite out of Apple
Many of us know people who were nervous about basic feature phones, let alone smartphones. How many of us know somebody that cannot even listen to a voicemail?
Keep in mind that when the iPhone was introduced in 2007, it was not the first smartphone. Yet, it dominated the market because it was intuitive, simple to use and came with unprecedented functionality.
In short, it just worked.
Apple's lasting legacy over the last 10-plus years is its ability to permanently raise customer expectations with era-defining products and technology that are attractive, accessible and welcoming.
Blockchain builders would be wise to keep the Cupertino company's core tenets in mind.
Implications for blockchain
Today, blockchain developers and industry stakeholders face a similar challenge to Apple. They need to highlight and educate customers on the unique value propositions of the blockchain, but still present everything in a way that is familiar and intuitive for the user.
The focus should not be on what blockchains can do strictly for technology's sake, as this leads us into the "solution looking for a problem trap".
Ali Nazem, vice president of business development at blockchain-based identity firm ShoCard, sums this challenge up nicely:
"The key to blockchain adoption is to demonstrate use cases that the technology can enable. Consumers do not need to know the complexity of the underpinning technology, but only that the solution is intuitive and secure."
Olivier Veyrac, vice president of customer development at the payments firm Align Commerce, agrees:
"Most customers don't specifically know about blockchain technology, they only really care about how fast, traceable, and easy it is to use."
Veyrac explained that when customers have questions and they explain blockchain to them, everything makes sense.
However, this is a laborious process.
The importance of design
Replicating Apple's success with the blockchain requires a clean and streamlined UX, but that all starts with your product or application's user interface (UI).
Your product's UI serves as a welcome mat, receptionist, sales associate and customer service representative, among other hats. Granted, many of these services are driven by behind-the-scenes databases and servers, but at the end of the day the UI is how clients touch and feel your products.
We have often found that in a race to put out an MVP [minimum viable product] or beta test, especially in the blockchain industry, design is not often seen as mission-critical. And while to a certain extent this may be true, nobody is going to try to go to market with a command-line system.
Furthermore, the stakes are raised even higher when it comes to blockchain, where speed is often a defining feature.
For instance, imagine you are running a blockchain-based remittance service. It should not take much longer for a user to set up the payment than it does for the money to reach its intended recipient.
However, in our experience simply trying to create an alluring UX once the back-end is already built out is suboptimal.
In short, it takes a lot of work to make something look simple and easy to use. Therefore, companies already need to be cognizant of the UI/UX implications of their entire product and technology stack from the early stages of their development process.
Where to go from here
Firms in the blockchain space need to provide UX development with appropriate resources.
This involves market research into customer preferences and a detailed understanding of how they plan to use your application. Additionally, it is important to understand experiences they have enjoyed and those that have turned them off products.
Further, it is critical for blockchain companies to acknowledge and account for the fact that they will have stratified customer bases with different levels of technical experience and expertise.
Once a firm has acquired this granular knowledge they can begin a proper design process that involves sketching, prototyping, testing, etc, to ensure the product meets customer expectations.
Keep it simple
In conclusion, remember that for blockchain technology to achieve widespread adoption, it must be presented in an intuitive format.
While at times it can feel like firms competing in the blockchain space are in an all-encompassing race to market, it is critical not to short-change the design process. Oftentimes, it is often not the first product that wins, or even the one with the best technology, but the one that is the simplest and easiest to use.
Herein lies the great opportunity for the blockchain industry as we gear up for 2017.
Apple products image via Shutterstock