“You are not the user!”
-every UX designer ever
This phrase is one of the guiding tenets of UX philosophy. Juniors often latch onto it and repeat it like a mantra. To themselves, to colleagues, to stakeholders. To anyone who cares. They write it on post-it notes and stick it to their screens. After all, the point of user-centred design is to make things better for the actual user.
This is usually taken to mean: make it as simple as possible and don’t assume too much of the user.
In web2, typically the user has less technical knowledge than the design team.
In web3, sometimes the user has more technical knowledge than the design team.
But in both cases, the phrase rings true: “you are not the user”.
Which means that in web3, against all prior experience, you possibly have to scale up your expectations.
This is a hard topic to write about, because UX designers have such strong opinions on making things user-friendly. When a new designer gets involved in DeFi, the initial reaction is usually something like “wtf is this? How does anyone use this stuff?!” They are usually so daunted by the steep learning curve that they totally forget that crucial instruction: “you are not the user.”
I have run into this issue so many times with other designers - either colleagues I worked with, or people that have reached out - that I think it’s worth tackling head-on.
Because actually, quite a lot of people are using web3 apps. Billions of dollars are locked in protocols. And based on the tenor of conversations I see on Twitter, people seem quite passionate about them.
So before we rush to tear down what’s there and build it all anew, spare a thought for the current user. The one who made it big in 2020. The one who approved some random smart contracts and hoped for the best. The one who consistently tries the newest and riskiest apps because they want a first-mover advantage. The one who’s farming 30 different tokens on ten different chains. The one who games airdrops by making micro-transactions on a dozen different wallets. The one who said “stop asking questions ser, and take my money - let’s ape.”
They also found it hard, but pushed through regardless.
These are the degens. And there are a lot of them.
Now I have mixed thoughts on the term degen, because
- Not every defi user is a degen
- Degens have enormously varied demographic backgrounds
- Everything in DeFi is fluid and changes constantly
So for now, let’s just say that degens are crypto enthusiasts with a high tolerance for risk, who are obsessed with DeFi because they find it fun, intellectually stimulating, and/or materially rewarding.
It can be tempting to focus so much on onboarding new users, that you forget about who the current batch of users are.
There is an argument that if you make things simpler, it benefits everyone, therefore you should always focus on the least experienced user. I think this is probably true, but more on this later.
Web3 right now might be an exception.
As you journey further into web3 and get more familiar with the basic actions, you’ll probably realise that some annoying quirks are kind of baked in to the experience. As an example, writing down your seed phrase is mega-annoying, and the whole concept of self-custody is probably alien to new users. But it’s also the thing that makes web3, web3! There are teams working on novel solutions to the seed phrase issue, but I think we have to accept that decentralization just makes things harder. It is an additional burden placed on the user, and the more you understand it, the more you realise there isn’t a simple fix.
Or look at bridges, or wrapped tokens, or layer 2 blockchains. All of them cause usability issues that are not easily solved with a simple tweak to the UI.
When you really get into designing for DeFi, you might find yourself changing your tune from “why don’t we just do this?” to “ok, so we can’t do this because…”
Your understanding will change, and so should your approach.
If something is hard to do, but people do it anyway, there is far more value in figuring out why people want to do it, than just complaining that it’s hard.
As always, the solution is to go speak to your users. Here are some questions you might want to begin your research program with:
- Find out what they want
- What protocols they use
- What were their biggest losses
- Their biggest wins
- How many Discords they’re in
- What their favourite gif is
- What sticker packs they use in telegram
- What memes did they recently share
- Most complicated strategy they’ve ever tried
- How many farms are they currently staked in
- Their thoughts on the veToken model
- Options-based liquidity
- What key numbers are they looking for when they assess projects
Some DeFi users are astonishingly well-informed. Some, but not all, mind you. It can be a little eye-opening to speak to some really experienced power users, and find out what makes them tick. You may reassess some design decisions.
If you join some crazy new DeFi project and you find yourself thinking “but what about the regular user?”, you may have to contend with the fact that the main user of the project will actually love it and ape in as soon as they can.
Remember: you are not the user.
“To do a dull thing with style is preferable to doing a dangerous thing without it To do a dangerous thing with style is what I call art”
- Charles Bukowski
Web3 has more personality than web2. Lore and storyline are immensely important. This can be alienating if not accustomed to it, but quite fun once you are. A lot the early defi projects were plastered in memes, or themed after food, or styled with cool but confusing UI. This has calmed down a bit since 2020, but is still prevalent. You certainly don’t see this kind of thing on PayPal or JP Morgan. Understanding the culture a little bit can help you connect with your users and help you build an appropriate design system.
Bear in mind, if the goal is to attract users, you probably need to bring them what they want. Part of that is going to be style. The most important thing is to have world-class UX (I feel like I have to keep saying this…), but if you can add a little web3 style, why not? And a lot of style will probably catch people’s attention.
If you are not a web3 native, one thing you can do to build empathy is become the user. This will depend on the scope of the project. Some projects are aimed at degens, some are aimed at beginners. That’s cool. We can have more than one type of user! 🙂 Sometimes a beginner’s mindset can be really beneficial. It just depends on what the project is and who the users are.
Investigate the lore. Say GM to a few people. Have fun out there. Bring a towel. WAGMI.
The history of curb cuts is fascinating. The little ramps cut into curbs allow wheelchair users to easily move from road to sidewalk. We take them for granted these days, but they were hard-fought for by a dedicated band of activists. Crucially, they make life easier for everyone, even though they were originally aimed at disabled users. This is the great aim of Universal Design: if we make things more accessible, it should benefit everyone, without hindering any existing users. And if there’s something you can do that doesn’t make the experience worse, but greatly improves it for some, then why not do it?
The “curb-cut effect” is a phenomenon that extends to digital products.
For example, if you improve the contrast between text and background, you don’t just make things easier to read for those with poor eyesight, you make it easier to read for everyone.
If you add alt text describing your images, you improve the experience for visually impaired users, but you don’t make it any worse for users without visual disability.
If you add captions to videos, you don’t just make the video better for those with hearing impairments, you also help users who speak a different language, or people who like watching videos at 2x speed.
I think web3 needs some more digital curb cuts. But I absolutely do not think we should ignore the power users. We should cherish them and thank them for trying our crazy experiments.
Respect the degen.