Web3 promises to turn the way the Internet works upside down. It uses blockchain technology to enable a user experience in the digital world that is decentralized, secure, private, and user-empowered. Web3 offers the trustlessness and security of smart contracts and decentralized applications that execute without any intermediaries or delays. Fewer gatekeepers, less friction, more power to the user, and a bigger take rate for the creators. Who wouldn’t want that? Yet, onboarding a billion users remains a dream for many web3 companies. There are many explanations as to why that is, one of which is that for the first 15 years of its life, blockchain space has been developing the infrastructure. It’s been laying down the pipes and electricity lines for the new frontier. And now that the foundation is there, we can start building the applications that will actually bring in the users.
As the web3 space is moving into this new phase of growth that is more consumer-oriented, the role of User Interface (UI) and User Experience (UX) cannot be overstated. This is part 1 of this article, we will touch on some of the challenges that web3 is facing when it comes to UX/UI design, some examples of promising achievements in that arena, as well as some best practices and recent trends.
From Amazon to Netflix and from Tinder to TikTok, web2 has perfected the game of capturing the attention and keeping us scrolling (or swiping, for that matter). From the loading speed and fonts to data capturing and haptics, every aspect of the user experience is thought through, A/B tested, and presented in the most delightfully addictive way in the interface.
Web3 is nothing like that. It has been getting away with the clunky, confusing, and frankly often unsafe UX because it’s been dangling the biggest carrot in front of the users - money. Not just money, but a promise of 10x or even 100x profit. When everything is financialized, users are much more willing to jump through hoops. This works to a degree, but it’s also a trap. As web3 is expanding to applications that are less and less focused on trading, the financial carrot becomes less and less applicable, and now, it's the expectation for UX that’s going up 10x. Nobody wants to go backward in the quality of experience for a vague idealistic promise of a decentralized future. Web3 has to step up.
There's sometimes an unnecessary antagonism between web2 and web3 as if they're opposing teams in a zero-sum game. A lot of that sentiment comes from the understanding of ways that web2 platforms came to hold so much power of the users. That was possible largely thanks to the seamlessness and addictiveness of the user experience. Web3’s principles aim to change this order at the core.
Yet, there simply is no web3 without web2. Just like there wouldn’t be web2 without web1. One has to stand on the shoulders of one's predecessor and build better. Web3 has the potential to improve some of the business models and ideas that formed web2 by offering new decentralization and security features, but web3 cannot dispose of web2's advancements, particularly when it comes to UI and UX design. Web3 has successfully integrated many of the development technologies and ideas, e.g., APIs or modularity. Viewing the achievements of web2 as complementary is a more productive way to leverage the strengths of both frameworks to create the most successful solutions for the future.
For a long time, the infrastructure of web3 didn’t allow for the straightforward UX that users get in web2. Some of that has been remedied, but even now, often, the only way to get an experience closer to “normal” is by giving up some of the elements of web3.
In 2021, Dapper Labs allowed users of NBA Top Shot to pay with credit cards, and while for crypto idealists, the idea of having to provide a government ID to KYC was unacceptable as it goes against the principle of permissionlessness, for most “normies” (folks new to crypto), there wasn’t anything appalling about showing their ID to a website. NBA Top Shot onboarded tens of thousands of users into the world of digital ownership and kicked off the NFT craze of 2021.
Even now, most fiat onramps, such as Paper or Crossmint, that help dApps onboard newcomers by offering credit card payments are essentially centralized intermediaries.
The space is difficult to navigate, it takes days and weeks to learn about how things work, what words mean, and how to get from point A to point B.
One might argue that using Metamask is much simpler than opening a bank account, yet the environment is completely new, the stakes are high (a mistake in a transaction is irreversible, so is the loss of seed phrase), and there is a lot of information that accompanies every interaction.
A simple swap requires the user to connect the wallet, pick the desired tokens, confirm the swap on the website, confirm it again in the wallet (confirm it once again with the hardware wallet), and then wait and hope that it goes through, because if the market is going crazy, the gas amount may not be enough (and what the hell is gas anyway?) Forget bridging to L2. “What is an L2, and why would I want to bridge? And also, isn’t a bridge a centralized intermediary?”
And then, on top of it, there is the terrible crypto jargon. CEX, DEX, TX, hash, sign, then approve, again, the gas - and all that before you even got a transaction going.
None of this is intuitive and user-friendly.
The very core feature of the space, with all of its value, presents enormous challenges for user experience design. There is no authority to appeal to. If you send your coins to the wrong address, if you lose your seed phrase, if you get hacked, there is neither an undo button nor there is customer service to fix it all. Both decentralization and immutability are, of course, essential to web3, yet for new users, those concepts sound like vague principles while the safety of funds is a very real concern.
The challenges of bringing blockchain technology to mainstream applications are many. This presents a lot of opportunities for UX & UI designers, especially professionals, who combine the web2 experience with open-mindedness and a knack for experimentation. Web3 has to learn from the triumphs of web2's refined user experience to capture audiences. The financial upside of crypto can lure users into tolerating less-than-ideal UX for now, but it’s not a sustainable strategy. As Web3 grows, delivering a user experience on par with—or better than—what web2 offers while upholding the principles of decentralization, privacy, trustlessness, and self-sovereigny, becomes imperative.
The challenge is steep, but the potential rewards for getting it right are monumental. Stay tuned for Part 2 of this article, where we will talk about some of the exciting UX/UI solutions and future trends.