How Web2 grumpiness + Web3 hubris are contributing to terrible user experiences on the cutting edge of tech.
My point in a nutshell: Web people are generally not interested in lessons from the past, and experienced tech people don’t need Web3 (at least not yet). Until there’s a meeting of the minds, blockchain UX is going to suck. ( Jargon definitions: Web2 is “the web” today. Web3 is what’s coming with the advent of blockchain technologies. Detailed definitions of Web2 & Web3.)
Over the past 4+ years, I’ve been dragged kicking and screaming into the actually-pretty-magical world of Web3. I’ve worked, or tried to work, with a bunch Web3 founders in two categories: the crypto-natives and the pre-disastered.
Type one: the ‘Crypto-Native’ founders 🔗
Crypto-natives have been living and breathing Web3 for years. They populate an enormous echo chamber of people speaking a language that most tech people can’t even understand, to say nothing of the general public.
I totally understand the sense of wonder and empowerment that comes from knowing you are building the future. That you know things that only your fellow travelers truly understand. And that some of these things will not only spell doom for what came before but are going to change the world. Early Web2 inventors felt this same way and for the same reasons.
The beginning of Web2 was a time of “new paradigms” and “new economies” and new financial metrics and all the rest. What could we possibly learn from prior software projects? And how could old-school retail or catalog possibly have anything to teach us about building the web?
From that perspective, it makes no sense for Web3 founders to look to Web2 practices for…well…anything. Breaking from old standards and valuing creativity is core to Web3 DNA: everything is a candidate for revolutionary redesign. If you’re a crypto-native reinventing enormous stuff like trust, money and digital identity, why wouldn’t you reinvent ‘user experience’ and ‘how to develop software?’ Why use old practices to invent something new?
Actually, even though the web was a very different beast from the software of the 90’s, it turns out we could have learned quite a bit. Creating a clear understanding of who your users are and figuring out what they want and need (not just what you want to give them) turned out to be a prerequisite of software success. The tedious process of having users interact with designs so you could iterate them before they were launched — actually, before they were coded — turned out to save time in the long run. And time-to-launch turned out to not matter nearly as much as ease of use (have you ever heard of Friendster or Orkut?). There are examples everywhere of companies losing big because of bad UX.
Check out these stats:
When I talk to the crypto-native founders about the value of basic user-centered design principles, the obvious risks of having engineers design user experiences, and the fact that user experience and product make or break projects almost every single time, they semi-patiently nod. Meanwhile, their brains are churning out great reasons why they don’t need any help, at least not right now.
The follow-ups I get are predictable:
- “We think our current designer is really awesome (typically a front-end coder who ‘does great designs,’ which all seem to be white text on black backgrounds for some reason) and maybe we will hire another one in a year.”
- “We think our first step is to get our product roadmap clear, so we are going to hire a ‘product person.’”
- “You don’t understand enough about the technology, it’s totally different.”
I understand these responses. I’ve heard them before. Hell, years ago, I said them myself.
Let’s get this out of the way: sure, there are lots of Web3 projects that have failed, but having a failed Web3 project does not mean that you have experienced product failure. If you are Web3-fluent, you can jump out of the window of the burning wreck of your failed Web3 experiment and have 14 offers of funding before you hit the ground. And if your Web3 experiment failed, it’s probably not because another Web3 product had a much better UX…because as I write this almost none of them do.
Type two: the Pre-Disastered 🔗
A young couple are looking at a house they might want to buy. A 2-seater airplane crashes into the house while they watch. The pilot of the plane comes out and waves from the hole in the house so we know he’s ok. The husband says ‘we’ll take the house!”
The world according to Garp | Video (1:13 minutes) 🔗
Airplane scene. This scene is used at http://professionalinfluence.com/persuasion-strategies/74-how-to-use-the-garp-pattern to explain the power of professional influence.
The World According to Garp (which is a great movie and more proof that I’m old)We’ll take the house…Honey the chances of another plane hitting this house are astronomical. See…it’s been pre-disastered! We’ll be safe here.
The Pre-Disastered founders are typically Web3 founders with Web2 experience. These are people who are both experienced builders and invested in the potential and inevitability of Web3 (and not all Web2 people have had time to do this).
Pre-Disastered founders have launched products with users in the past. They have real-world experience using things like agile and have seen user-centered design processes in action. They’ve watched usability studies that have made them crumple and want to barf. They’ve had to create documentation and support materials to band-aid confusing features. They’ve complained about bosses who have prioritized new features over improvements. They’ve lived through the cost of not doing user-centered design.
Some of the Pre-Disastered are UX and product people with impressive and deep resumes. Interestingly, I’ve found that most of them aren’t writing and talking about Web3. They’re staying off the grid and under the radar on purpose. Anonymity is all the rage with the Web3 elite, for security reasons and because it’s part of the culture.
Not yet in the mix: Web2 Grumps 🔗
Good user experience and product designers don’t need Web3, so not many of them are exploring it (yet). Like leaping founders, they can exit a window and have 14 offers before they hit the ground from non-Web3 companies.
Web2 pros aren’t all grumpy, of course, but they all have a choice. Web2 experts could take gigs where their experience is highly valued, or they could move to Web3, where experience is often seen as a flaw. When you’re in demand where you are, and the ‘new thing’ is technically intimidating, uses a whole new language, and seems super cliquey, why bother?
Throwing the babies out with the bathwater 🔗
Crypto natives hear about tried-and-true methods that result in better products (babies) and all they are seeing is “people who don’t know our tech and want us to slow down” (bathwater).
Pre-disastered founders want to benefit from the experience, but they also face insane pressures to launch and profit.
Meanwhile, Web2 grumps are being told that Web3 is potentially more transformative than the internet (babies) but seeing a bunch of noisy hotshots getting money thrown at them to create ways to buy and sell pixelated GIFs for ridiculous prices (bathwater).
We’ve seen this combo of inflated promise and hotshot founders before (pretty much daily since 2000). The tech is new. The startup scenario isn’t. (Pro tip: Expensive pixelated GIFs are to NFTs like selling books in 1999 was to e-commerce.)
The result of throwing out the babies with the bathwater?
- Terrible user experiences and monstrously confusing products being produced by teams ignorant of even basic best practices.
- Super-techy product launches are scorned by UX people who could and should be fascinated by the mind-boggling potential of Web3 and the challenge to make it make sense.
Advice for everybody 🔗
I’ve presented one explanation for bad Web3 UX. It’s easy to whine about problems. So, what’s the fix?
Product and UX pros who are thinking about Web3 🔗
- Start learning about the actual potential of Web3 beyond today’s hype-storm. The UX puzzles are going to be super cool.
- The crypto natives need the most help, but they’re not ready for it. The baby may be a great product people love and competitors can’t easily copy. But the bathwater is “slowing down and using best practices,” which is intolerable.
- Arguing “the tech doesn’t matter, our skills apply to everything” may be true, but it’s currently not helpful. Apparently, we’ve been zapped back to the early 2000s: get ready to be stunned by how little today’s founders know and care about the proof-points of the past. I wasn’t ready. I was knocked for a major loop when I went from being a hero to a pain-in-the-ass old person. When’s the last time you had to explain to someone that ‘copying the UI of Google Drive’ is a terrible idea, explain exactly why, and hear them tell you that you just don’t understand the tech? Are you ready for comments like ‘no, we don’t need to get the basic logic of the system down on paper, that’s not how Web3 works?’ I’m more than able to revive the explanations and painful arguments I used two decades ago, but I don’t want to.
- When asked or pushed to help with a Web3 project, figure out who you are dealing with. Look for people who have been pre-disastered. Don’t sign on to any major project with a crypto-native founder until you’ve tried working with them on something small. It may work out great…if so, dive in. If it doesn’t, don’t beat yourself up. The problem you’re encountering is much bigger than you are and the failure doesn’t reflect on you.
Insights for crypto-natives who want experienced people to help you build better products faster 🔗
- Your tech may be able to do things for people that have never been imaginable before. You may be super strong technically, but you are not super-strong when it comes to the ‘people’ part. The crypto heads you talk to every day are not regular people.
- Tech changes super fast. People and their abilities to make sense of complexity do not. Tech of the past may not interest you, but the science and practice of making products people love should.
- Don’t get so smitten with reinventing everything. Just reinvent the thing you are reinventing — it’s so much easier! “Old” methods may slow you down a bit, but ultimately they are a bag of shortcuts.
- When you are interested and have time for experienced product and UX pros, put this in the job description: “Web3 fluency is not required. We will give you time to learn the jargon and the domain while you are on the job. We know that you will be able to help with product and process best practices while you learn the details.”
- We’ll be here when you’re ready.
- See list of related links below.
I’m optimistic the Web3 natives won’t be quite as blind as us Web2 hotshots were. The baby-to-bathwater ratio is objectively higher. The gap between old and new is so much narrower than say between Web1 and magazine publishing and television programing circa 1996, or between traditional retail and catalog and Web2.
Old and new are going to have to learn from each other. And they will. Eventually. But I think it’s too early to try to win the hearts and minds of the crypto native founders. First, they have to fail for themselves.
This is going to change rapidly (I hope). As it does, the chasm between the wisdom of the recent past and the speed of the future will narrow. For now, I’ve decided to help where help is wanted, even though I know early help from someone like me could be game-changing to any tech startup.