Tara Tan, who leads the venture studio at IDEO CoLab, is on a mission to get blockchain developers to up their design game. She was herself an early crypto adopter, back when bitcoin was the only game in town, and a clunky one at that. She is acutely aware of how difficult it remains today for average people to use the technology she finds so promising.
Tan was born in Singapore and attended the University of Bristol in the U.K., after which she started her own design studio. She opened her first bitcoin wallet in 2010, though she didn’t become active in the crypto industry until 2015. Initially, she says, “I was very attracted by the idea of what is this magic internet money and who are these crypto-anarchists who are trying to rule the world?”
Later, after earning a master’s degree in design and technology from Harvard, Tan joined a 3D-printing startup in Boston before moving to CoLab, which by then was already exploring possible uses for blockchain technology and building prototypes.
When we sat down, Tan was fresh from leading a Devcon workshop on design principles and user experience with Connie Yang, Coinbase’s director of design. Having expected perhaps 50 participants, they instead found themselves leading a packed room of more than 100 rowdy developers through a series of exercises in design thinking, from brainstorming the initial problem to storyboarding a prototype solution.
Human-centered design, as it is known, is a big theme this year at Devcon—the annual conference, now in its fourth year, that is billed as a “family reunion” for everyone in the Ethereum ecosystem. Even as the technical development of blockchains has become steadily more robust, said Yang, there remains “a huge gap now between the technologists who understand it and everyone else in the world.”
Everyone else in the world, of course, is the pool of potential users. “If we only bring a small fraction of this world along with us, then we have not succeeded in this utopian dream,” Tan said at the end of the workshop. Afterward, Tan spoke with BREAKER about how blockchain developers can think like designers, why crypto jargon needs to change, and when we can expect to see a fully functioning Web 3.0.
What is design thinking, and what can it offer to the blockchain space?
Design thinking is about the intersection between desirability, viability, and feasibility—what people love, what can be built, and what is economically sustainable. The intersection there is the sweet spot. That’s where a lot of innovation can happen that can have reach and impact beyond its origins. There is a lot of heavy focus on technical innovation today in the blockchain space, which there should be—we’re in an infrastructure-building moment for sure. But where it starts moving beyond a technical feat into something that people would really embrace and adopt is through its users. Human-centered design is really a way to bridge wonderful, cutting-edge technology and the applications of tomorrow.
A lot of people think design is just about making stuff pretty—that it’s a luxury you can’t afford when you’re a lean startup. At what stage of developing a new product, app, or service should you start to think about design?
That’s such a pet peeve of mine. Design is not about pushing pixels. I think design should be brought in at the very start of the process, because design is really a problem-solving mindset. Once you can bring a designer into the challenges that you face—it can be a governance challenge, a community challenge, or even sometimes a technical or usability challenge—you can apply design skills to any facet of your process. Design is really a way to facilitate debate and discussion.
So you think it’s foundational, but obviously projects in this space are now playing catch up. Why has the blockchain industry been slow to adopt design thinking?
There is a bit of a knowledge gap. Part of our work at IDEO is bringing more designers into this space. It takes a while, because the metaphors in this space are so ambiguous, right? They’re abstract. We use terms like “private keys” versus “public keys.” We use terms like “decentralization,” even though we don’t really know what that means. All of these terms that we use as jargon, the metaphors are not quite set. We talk about nodes in a network, we talk about wallets—but they don’t look like the wallets that we have today. So these metaphors are not bringing enough designers on board. But once we have designers on board who can translate these metaphors into tangible products and applications for users, that’s where the magic really happens.
So you think in a few years we might be speaking about all of these concepts differently than we do now?
Maybe. Who knows, right? “Tweet,” “google”—these are words that have seeped into the lexicon of our everyday life. Twenty years ago, that wasn’t the case. Even “upload” and “download” are terms that are now part of the common lexicon. “Browser,” “streaming,” “mouse over”—all this stuff.
Is beautiful design more important for dapps that are trying to reach mass consumer adoption than for those that are only targeting enterprises? I don’t know if you watch Silicon Valley, but I think of the “Box 2,” [that device for server farms]…
Oh, God. “I want it to look like a leopard.” That episode was a little painful [for me], with the jungle music.
But the example being that enterprises still found it useful, even though it’s not something that people would want to put in their homes. Is it more important, then, for dapps that are trying to reach consumers?
I don’t think so. That’s a very superficial way of looking at what design can do and offer. That’s packaging, which is a valid expression of design, but really design is about finding what is at the core of the matter and articulating it in systems, products, and processes. So when you talk about B2B or a deep network process that may not touch an end user or a newbie at the start, design is really a way to streamline what do you really want to do, what’s the problem you want to solve, and how do you want to express that. I think a lot of enterprise software, applications, or solutions can benefit from that in many ways.
What do you think is a bigger barrier to dapp adoption—lack of network scaling or a difficult user experience?
I think it’s a mix of both. We’re definitely in a phase where we’re building apps and infrastructure at the same time. It’s going to be an iterative cycle. It has to improve with use. With Augur, for example: yes, they had to download a desktop client and connect to different decentralized nodes, and that was a bit of a sore user experience. But that was pretty much the reality of what the technology can do today. So we’re trying to figure this out as we go along. Augur was one of the first experiments to really get in the hands of users. I think we’ll learn exponentially more in the next five years as we learn from each as a community.
In your talk, you said that “designers are problem solvers.” But at an event called Devcon, I’d wager most people here consider themselves problem solvers. What problems do designers have special insight into that might be a blind spots for others?
I think everyone is a problem solver; everyone wants to make the world better. The act of design really helps to clarify and articulate, and I think that is a process that a lot of technical teams, governance teams, and community teams can benefit from, not just design [teams]. The idea, for example, of prototyping and iteration; the idea of brainstorming, encouraging wild ideas, facilitating debate with voting and Post-Its. These are just tools and techniques that people can use anywhere, in any discipline, to really clarify, facilitate, and maybe even eventually work toward consensus. It’s a problem-solving process, not an end-all solution.
This is where I ask you to read the tea leaves. How far away are we from seeing a fully functioning Web 3.0?
Ooh. Fully functioning Web 3.0?
However you want to interpret “fully functioning.”
Looking at the tea leaves, I think in the next few years we’ll see a couple of decentralized applications that really reach a mass audience. I think there’s going to be a tension between centralized and decentralized [apps]. This was actually a topic that we were talking about yesterday. It’s a lot easier to build a centralized application today than a decentralized application. So developers and designers are trying to figure out what is the right mix of the two where it’s still convenient to access but it has decentralized features and properties. And I think that’s a tension and balance that we as a community are going to have to deal with over the next few years as we [seek] to compete with applications in the Web 2.0 space that are seamless, easy to use, and fast.
That goes back to an idea you mentioned in your talk, that “mediocre technology, wonderful user experience” often trumps “wonderful technology, mediocre user experience.”
Most people would choose “wonderful experience,” right? That’s a balance that we’re going to have to navigate as a community. If 99 percent of people are not onboarded into the crypto space, whatever we ship to them might become the norm. So, what is the mix between centralized and decentralized that we’re OK with? There are certain principles we need to keep regarding decentralized options, like private-key storage.
But you think there may still be a place for centralized apps and services in this Web 3.0, that it isn’t about decentralizing everything?
Decentralization is the end goal. What I’m talking about is, as we get there, we’re going to have to navigate that tension. If you talk to any developers who are actually shipping today, yes, they can decentralize everything, but it’s going to be slow. And that’s something that we have to recognize. We’re on the journey towards making it decentralized. [Maybe for now that means] launching things through the App Store. We as a community have to find our first principles and figure out that balance.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity. Photo courtesy Tara Tan.