This story was originally published on July 15 on Bankless Publishing.
We made the internet hard again.
The early internet was kind of a rocky start, what with dial-up and no search engines. Until the advent of broadband, you had to dial up the internet and wait for it to answer! It was expensive, time-consuming, and not that fun.
Then came Web2 — the era of user-generated, participatory, and interactive sites. Web2 has some issues, primarily related to the influx of multinationals who saw the opportunity inherent in a two-way internet and developed platforms to collect user data — thus making users the product. But we can’t deny that Web2 did something magical: it made the internet easy to use.
Web2 made it possible for anyone in the world to access and interact with knowledge, resources, bank accounts, online classes, encyclopedias, social networks, side hustles, full-time jobs, inspiration, and healing. This was a breakthrough for user adoption. The biggest players in the Web2 space prioritized user experience (UX) first, ruthlessly designing platforms that made the internet fun and easy, not a confusing corner for tech nerds.
The better the UX got, the more people around the world embraced the Web. Better UX makes it easier to use sites when you’re pressed for time or just don’t have a strong enough connection to take the time to click all over the site, trying to figure out what to do next. Especially in countries reliant on mobile phones — those without access to reliable internet connection, quick speeds, and laptops or computers — Web2’s simple phone apps and well laid-out sites were huge for opening up access*.*
This chart shows the rate of internet adoption by country. Look at the massive spikes with the onset of mobile and better UX with Web2.
Chart from Our World in Data
If we throw out all our learnings from Web2, including more than two decades of user experience insight, we’re not going to build a better internet for the world. We’re going to build an internet for the wealthy — whether wealthy in money, time, or education.
I’m not here to build that.
The problem is, Web3 is not designed for everyday users. And it’s shaping up to be a tragedy.
I want to give the world access to decentralized financial tools, permissionless voting via smart contracts, and verifiable ownership of digital assets. But it’s not going to happen if we don’t pause long enough to recognize that we’re doing something irreversible and unnecessary: making the internet difficult again.
I don’t mean to attack the developers or tell anyone in Web3 that they’re doing bad work. The reality is, we probably need to go through these growing pains to get where we want to go — Web1 had to go through this too.
But right now, Web3 UX is … demeaning. UX tells a story — and right now, it’s not a very good one. When I open the app for an exchange and see a wall of charts without explanations, the UX tells me that I’m not enough of a trader to use DeFi. When I try to join a DAO and am met with only a Discord link as my source of information, I’m left with the feeling that maybe it’s not for me, if I don’t have enough free time to navigate the endless chat channels. When I try to buy that NFT and the UX tells me the transaction failed — but not why, the UX is telling me I’m not welcome.
The user experience of Web3 is confusing and cold and not designed for the average person.
To move forward, we need to take a page from Web2’s book: ruthlessly prioritize the user.
I think part of the reason we compare Web3 to Web1 so much is because both lack something critical that Web2 got right: user experience. Both Web1 and Web3 are often called the “Wild West,” where tech-savvy users go gallivanting around the corners of the internet themselves, with no roadmap and enough free time and funds to put hours into it.
Web2 was an internet renaissance for everyone because of user experience. Why did Apple succeed? They designed a personal computer for the average person, not for the tech-savvy coder. Why did Amazon succeed? They built a platform based upon relentless prioritization of the user. They made it so easy for the user to engage with them that it became a no-brainer for most.
I fear that, with Web3’s general distaste for the practices and principles of Web2, we’ve thrown out something valuable along with the corporate greed and the platform monopoly. While throwing out those nasties, we’ve also accidentally thrown out our empathy for the average user.
User experience design is all about empathy. It’s all about putting yourself in someone else’s shoes and designing products or experiences that enrich their lives. It’s about imagining exactly where, when walking through an airport, a flight-status board should be placed and a bathroom sign should be hung. It’s about looking at a photo-editor app and making an “undo” button for those mistakes your users will make. It’s about creating a bill pay service on your banking application in a way that demonstrates safety and security for users, because you already know that’s what they desire.
It’s all about empathy.
I worry that we’re losing that empathy in Web3.
Instead of showing empathy, we repeat “Not financial advice” and “Do your own research” and “I’m not a lawyer” over and over again, while never pointing anyone in the right direction to find that financial advisor or do that research or hire that lawyer.
We tell people, “Be safe,” and “Make sure you trust every contract before you sign it” without explaining how to be safe or how to know when to trust something in a supposedly trustless system.
And, we expect people to have the time and risk-tolerance to self-custody their assets, without providing empathy for those who can’t take that risk. We tell them to “figure it out” on their own. And with that, we turn them away in droves, to go and write anti-crypto think pieces for the New York Times.
Web3 expects average people to care about the tech stack that something was built on. It expects people to choose a ‘chain’ and form a ‘tribe’ around the ‘maxis’ of that chain. Until Web3 starts acknowledging the real-world, on-the-ground problems people are coming to the tech to solve, it will stay in tech-nerd limbo-land.
We built ourselves a maze of steps, requiring every user to navigate each one on their own. We built a palace for those lucky enough to have the time and resources to invest in learning about Web3, ignoring those who don’t have the chance to sit down and figure out what a seed phrase is.
But this is not irreversible. We can solve this.
Here are four key areas where Web3 needs better UX:
Simple first steps are how you get started, but in Web3, those simple first steps don’t exist.
Let’s use a Web2 page as an example. I’ll compare a bank to a decentralized exchange.
Here is the homepage of Bank of America. While the design might be a little ugly, every corner of the page is geared toward a new person looking at the page for the first time.
Image from Bank of America
From “Open an Account” to “Schedule an Appointment” to the range of credit card offerings, all with a link to click, there’s somewhere to land if you’re here for the first time. Even the Search bar in the top right corner helps you get started from scratch. This page was clearly designed for the first-time user.
Now, I’ll compare it to a basic DeFi page. They all look about the same, so I grabbed a generic one.
Image from Uniswap.
If you were here for the first time, what would you possibly do? Where would you go? How would you start? (And we’re surprised user adoption of crypto outside centralized providers is so low?)
Most of you probably got into crypto the same way I did: a peer showing you the ropes. Or maybe a really great podcast or YouTube channel got you started. But if you didn’t have that, you would be completely and utterly lost when landing on this generic DEX.
We do have emerging resources to help solve this problem. Rabbithole, for example, is a course that guides you through the rules and mechanics of Web3. Such projects are excellent, and I love that resources like these exist.
But what if you had to take a course when you were trying to open a Bank of America account?
What if you had to learn a whole new dictionary of terms every time you were trying to start something new in Web2?
Imagine you’re a parent with a poor internet connection and only a half hour between your job ending and your kids getting home from daycare. To solve your problem of needing somewhere to move money around, would you try Bank of America or the DEX?
Call them what you want, but Bank of America has designed an application with the user in mind. They’ve designed it with the intention of helping the young parent with the half-hour of time and the poor internet connection. They’ve designed it for the world.
Those are the people we need to design for in Web3.
People who are interested in Web3 also need a way to get involved and get work.
But how do you get involved in DAOs? How do you get work in crypto? Again, I’d bet you started when a friend or peer showed you what to do. Or maybe you listened to a podcast or read an article — you invested time and energy into the work.
Let’s look at starting work in a Web2 company versus a DAO.
(Again, no company — be they Web2 or Web3 — is perfect. Most are quite flawed. We raise these issues not to glorify the company but to show where improvements could be made.)
Image from Google Careers
This Google page demonstrates seamless, simple UX because you can simply type the role you’d like and where you want it located. Instant results. The internet, in this scenario, is incredibly easy. It just simply works.
In DAOs, there’s no simple way to apply for work without untangling the mess of links and information presented. Here we’ll make fun of ourselves, because we know we have a long way to go.
This is what new joiners see after going through a brief verification process in BanklessDAO:
Image from BanklessDAO Discord server
For the Web3-native, you might have read that and thought: pretty straightforward, right? For the non-initiated, this is pure gibberish. BANK? Collab.Land? Wallets? Level 2? (Again, we know we can improve, so we’re okay with poking fun at ourselves.)
We’ve been designing these systems without any thought to how an average, non-tech-savvy user would encounter them.
This is why user adoption of Web3 is so difficult. This is why DAOs struggle to attract and retain top talent. This is why we need to learn from Web2.
One of the biggest problems in Web3 UX right now is the sheer lack of benefit-driven writing and designing. Instead, everything is designed around tech and philosophy, hoping that users are willing to jump through a million hoops for the sake of achieving the still undefinable “decentralization.”
Unfortunately, the average user probably isn’t chasing “decentralization” like we think they are.
Just like most people in the world don’t care if Netflix is built on AWS, most people in the world don’t care if Web3 Netflix is built on Ethereum or Solana or Cosmos.
While people in Web3 now may care about these things, if we’re going to reach mainstream adoption, we need to design for the rest of the world: not just our bubble of Crypto Twitter.
When designing a product or a web page or a hiring process, we need to think more deeply about problems people have, and design solutions to those problems. Most people don’t go in search of philosophical ideas around decentralization or self-sovereignty when they’re trying to solve a problem. They look for a solution to their problem. And that solution needs to be quick and easy and simple to understand.
Image from Slack
For example, look at how Slack, one of the empires of Web2, has made their website about solutions, not tech or philosophy.
Slack shows you how you can “make decisions faster” and “stay organized” and “collaborate with teams at other companies.” It doesn’t tell you its philosophies on remote work and agile teams — although you can definitely find those philosophies somewhere on the internet. But when hooking its first-time-users, it focuses on how it will make the lives of those users better.
Some Web3 products are marketed toward the most advanced users. That’s okay — those products can use a different set of benefits and solutions for those users, which might involve a mix of tech and philosophy. But for entry-level, first-time products, it’s unreasonable to think that people will care what chain their app is built on or how the team thinks about decentralization.
For Web3 to go mainstream we need to give people solutions, not philosophy.
One of the primary principles of UX is to always provide an exit route. Unfortunately, blockchains don’t have an exit route: transactions are irreversible.
But that doesn’t mean we can’t offer empathy when something goes wrong, or make sure we design for users who might be trying a transaction for the first time.
The 10 Usability Heuristics from the Nielsen Norman Group.
Using crypto and Web3 should not feel impenetrable to first-time users. They should not feel lost in the dark about transactions they’re making. They should feel comfortable trying something without needing a knowledgeable peer to show them how.
If we don’t give empathy to users by providing them with an exit route (or explaining why there isn’t an exit route), then we are going to lose the user adoption battle.
One way to do this is by making an empathy map, which is a way to identify what a user says, feels, thinks, and does when performing an action. Here’s an example of an empathy map for a user buying a TV:
Empathy Map from the Nielsen Norman Group.
Creating an empathy map can help designers understand where their users are when using their product. It can help us build in exits in case something goes wrong, and provide reassuring messages and tooltips when they’re unsure about where to go next.
It can help us design for real humans, who make real mistakes and have real fears and doubts and questions.
Or, even better — we can take things one step further and ask non-tech-savvy users to test our apps and products. We can reach the general public and run experiments with them. We can bring the principles of user research — to test a product with real users early and often — into Web3 product development.
We don’t need to reinvent the wheel in Web3. We just need to ensure the wheel turns smoothly.
I don’t want a hard internet again. I’m not here to build that.
In fact, I’m here to build an internet that’s even easier to use than Web2. I’m here to build an internet where you can join a DAO and get work without months of channel-scrolling and lurking. I’m here to build an internet where anyone in the world can swap tokens and make payments without jumping through hoops and getting stuck behind legal restrictions. I’m here to build an internet that is truly equitable for all.
If you’ve struggled with getting started in Web3 in any way, know that you’re not alone. Don’t blame yourself — it’s an entirely new world that is filled with technical jargon and confusing apps. And if you’d like to join me, or if you found this post helpful, please share it with a friend. Web3 is a movement, and it needs more than big philosophical ideas to take off; it needs true empathy for the average user. It needs empathy for people like you and me.
Samantha is on the Communications team at Aragon, and is working on transitioning the entire Aragon Network into a DAO. She got her start in web3 in the Writers Guild of BanklessDAO. To read more of her writing, subscribe to the Quorum Newsletter.