Blake Hudelson

@blakehudelson

Blockchain and Design

An Interview with Matt Storus, Lead Designer at 21.co

Matt Storus heads the design for 21.co, a leading Bitcoin startup. Matt talks about his path to becoming a product designer and what it’s like to design for blockchain.

Matt, what’s been your career trajectory as a designer and how did you end up at 21.co?

My path started with the study and practice of Architecture. Designing the built environment was my first passion and influences my work as a Product Designer today.

I studied Architecture at the University of Waterloo as an undergrad, then at the Harvard Graduate School of Design as a grad student. I’ve also had the opportunity to work at a number of architecture firms in the US, UK, and Canada.

About a year after graduating from the GSD I took a huge leap into tech. I moved to the Bay Area and joined Samsung where I worked on the UX for apps, wearables, and IoT devices. After three years at Samsung I joined the Bitcoin startup 21.co as Lead Designer, which is where I am today.

Matt’s architecture work from his Harvard GSD days

What does 21.co do? What is your role?

At 21.co our mission is to drive the mass adoption of Bitcoin. We believe that earning bitcoin (rather than buying it) is the easiest way for millions of people to join the Bitcoin economy.

The 21 app allows you to earn bitcoin in exchange for completing microtasks like surveys or responding to paid questions. Your 21 profile is like a professional LinkedIn profile with one key difference: you set a price to be contacted. Instead of recruiters or salespeople paying LinkedIn to send you a message, they pay you directly for your time and attention.

21’s Inbox: email that pays you

As Lead Designer, my responsibility is to take product concepts to production in collaboration with our CEO and engineering team. In my time at 21, I’ve helped ship multiple iterations of our website, mobile app, web app, marketing, presentation material, and even industrial design and packaging. As a fast growing startup, we move very quickly at 21, and an important part my job is to ensure that we maintain a consistent identity and experience across all our products.

What is blockchain technology? What is it useful for?

Blockchain technology is starting to enter the mainstream, but for a non-technical audience it can be difficult to understand.

In a generic sense, a blockchain is simply a type of database. What makes blockchains unique is that rather than being run by a single organization (like Google or Amazon) they are managed by a distributed network of participants. There is no “master” version of the database. Instead, each member of the network is incentivized to maintain and update their own copy. This redundancy eliminates the risk of a single point of failure.

Now in the case of public blockchains (like Bitcoin or Ethereum) they are also totally open. Anyone can read or write valid data to these databases without needing permission or special access rights. Furthermore, once that data is written to the database it is practically impossible to go back and edit or delete it.

Famously, the first applications have been digital currencies like Bitcoin and Ethereum. These decentralized peer-to-peer currencies are only possible because blockchains are able to solve the “double-spend” problem, which goes something like this:

Given that it’s simple to duplicate digital data, how do you prevent someone from buying a single “digital coin” and making a million copies for themselves? Traditionally, this relies on a single trusted point of authority (like a bank) keeping an internal record of everyone’s balances and only permitting valid transactions. However in the case of cryptocurrencies, there is no need for a central authority. The bank’s private central database is replaced by the public distributed database, and their fraud detection is replaced by a transaction validation process called mining.

The first wave of blockchain startups focused on its utility as a store of value. Miners, exchanges, wallets, merchant services, and developer tools emerged. Now a second wave is beginning to build use cases beyond reinventing money.

What are some application examples?

Applications include any system that currently requires a trusted central authority to maintain the system. These applications include social networks, proof of ownership, legal contracts, data storage, voting, fundraising models, and even computing itself. We’re in the middle of a virtual Cambrian explosion with new protocols and applications being released every day. It’s a very exciting time to be a part of the space.

What role do designers have in the blockchain / cryptocurrency space?

In general, the world of blockchain is very technically focused and under-designed. This represents a massive opportunity for designers to shape a still-young industry.

Generally, people in the space have the vague sense that design is important, but due to lack of experience they typically confuse it with the visual “styling” of an app or website. Part of this issue is due to the lack of designers in the space, but thankfully this is changing rapidly.

I would offer these considerations for any designer working in the space:

Advocate for design. As a designer in this space, part of your job will be helping your team understand the design process. I find it helpful to frame design as an iterative decision making process meant to determine the human-facing experience of a system or product. Attempt to understand the problem you’re solving and why we are solving it. Rapidly make hypotheses, prototype them, test them, and repeat. Blockchain technology is complex, so it’s even more critical to quickly explore and validate ideas with users before dedicating expensive development resources to building it.

Use abstraction and analogy. Products and services built on blockchain technology can be complex under the hood. However, this doesn’t mean you should pass on this complexity to your users. Abstract away the complexity and try to use as many familiar concepts and interaction patterns as possible. Create an intuitive user experience that does not require background knowledge or extensive explanation.

If a non-technical user needs to read an FAQ on how to use your app, it’s already too complicated.

Get feedback from outside your bubble. It’s important to define your audience from the beginning. Building personas is good, but there is no substitute for talking to real people. What real problem are you trying to solve? A perfectly designed and engineered product is no good if it’s not useful to users. Seek out feedback and criticism. Often times this means talking to people outside your immediate bubble of friends and coworkers. The most humbling and insightful part of the design process is putting your first prototype in front of someone, and watching them attempt to use it without your help or instruction.

Any resources (blogs, books, podcasts) that you recommend for people who are interested in learning about the blockchain/cryptocurrency industry?

Twitter is an excellent source to learn about the industry from the people building it. If you are a beginner, I recommend following a few key people then expanding based on who they follow and retweet. A word of caution: Bitcoiners are notoriously acerbic on social media, and there are a number of “factions” who are constantly at war with one another. Get the lay of the land first before venturing out of read-only mode. As for suggestions, I recommend:

  • Naval Ravikant (@naval): CEO of Angellist and frequent blockchain tweet stormer
  • Vitalik Buterin (@VitalikButerin): creator of Ethereum
  • Andreas Antonopoulos (@aantonop): Author of Mastering Bitcoin
  • Balaji Srinivasan (@balajis ): CEO of 21 who is making his long-awaited return to Twitter
  • CoinDesk (@coindesk): News

Thanks for reading! If you’d like to continue the conversation, leave a comment or message me @blakehudelson or Matt @mattstorus on Twitter.

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