With its roots in the formative crypto currency - Bitcoin, ‘blockchain’ is being quoted in many Financial Technology (‘#FinTech’) debates as something ‘we’ definitely need to both plan for - and design for - in the future. From the buzz on LinkedIn, Twitter et al., it sounds like blockchain technology is going to transform the way we’ll all be transacting (payments, information, requests) in the future. It paints itself as a utopian network founded on ultra-secure, ultra-fast, low-cost principles. Sounds good, doesn’t it?
The question I have though, is what does it really mean to the vast majority of folk not in the IT, Information or Financial Services industries who may have a head start?
In this article, I seek to explore three aspects. Firstly, to frame the concept to make it a little easier to grasp. Secondly, to think about the usefulness for end users and thirdly, sow the seeds of what we might need to design for, in the future.
As with all these things, a definition could be a good place to start.
Image credit: Azienda Banca
Blockchain – who are you?
“The term "blockchain technology" typically refers to the transparent, trustless*, publicly accessible ledger that allows us to securely transfer the ownership of units of value using public key encryption and proof of work methods. The technology uses decentralized consensus to maintain the network, which means it is not centrally controlled by a bank, corporation, or government."
Quite a mouthful, no? There were others but this was about the best I could find, in an hour at least. Sourced from blockchain.com (a prominent provider in the blockchain world) it still makes you screw your face up.
Trying to find a definition that cuts through the highly technical and evidently niche circle of blockchain chatter is, well, rather hard. Most of the content I could find seems to have been written by those in the know, for those that know. Awkward.
Time for a step back…
*In this context, trustless doesn’t mean trust free. It means the ability of two parties to make an exchange without the interference of a third party acting to hold something (even momentarily) as a nominal owner for the supposed benefit of one or more other parties.
Help me, Google
Putting myself in the shoes of an ordinary citizen, I took to our collective world favourite – Google – to ask a couple of questions to try and gain another perspective. It went like this:
“OK Google, tell me about blockchain.” …1.3m search results generated.
10 seconds later: “OK Google, what IS blockchain?” This time, 10.8m results generated.
The fact that my ‘what IS’ search generated eight times as many results as the ‘tell me about’ search infers to me, at least, that blockchain is not a mass market ‘thing’, yet.
It’s probably fair to say that if you’re in the world of technology, you probably know a thing or two about the concept of blockchain. If it’s true that since 2013, Google searches for ‘blockchain’ have risen 1900%, it’s sounding like a hot topic coming to a screen near you.
Dig a little amongst some of the Google hits and you read that it involves exiting things like ‘nodes’, ledgers, miners, networks and validation. Lucky you, or us? At this level of insight, it’s almost understandable that end users aren’t high up in the conversation.
What was clear from some of the articles I came across in the Google exercise was that, in terms of speed, security and also the levelling of the playing field, blockchain is being positioned as a genuine true challenger to existing centralised transactional networks held by either the establishment, or established main stream institutions like banks and geo-political networks such as crime fighting organisations. These groups know it, too; even the big international banking players are exploring it, including the Swiss!
That all said, unable to find a simplified – if not totally comprehensive – explanation of blockchain, I decided to mould a view on what blockchain might ‘sounds’ like to the uninitiated.
Step by step example
The following is an approximate step by step view of how you (or ‘we’ designers) might explain the principle of blockchain to those not in the know. I make no apologies for this sounding a bit like a morphed user story!
1. I want to carry out a transaction of some description, e.g. ‘I want to move $X from Y account to Z account’. Instead of putting this transaction into the hands of a single closed club as I have always done (say Bank to Bank), I decide to offer it to a peer to peer committee that runs a more open, yet more secure and also transparent group. I may do this for cost reasons but also for speed and the knowledge it’s not owned by more than one institution.
2. My offer is accepted.
3. The committee instantly validates both myself and the transaction I have requested. It’s good to know that if 51% of the committee network agree that my transaction request is valid (including me), then it will be approved. Even if one of the committee is ill – or offline, there are enough members to ensure my transaction can be validated, at any time of day or night. There is redundancy built in to ensure the system is never ‘down’.
4. Following validation, my transaction is carried out
5. My transaction is then added to other transactions associated with mine, and others, to create a ‘block’ of transactions, a bit like a digital statement.
6. The blocks are added in a chronological order to a ledger that is then sent out (distributed) in an instant to those members of the committee and any others that have the right to view the ledger (like other committees I may use in the future).
7. The blocks are added to this ‘distributed ledger’ in a way that is permanent & unalterable so there is never a doubt about the truth or status of any of my transactions.
8. As the blocks get added together, they form a chain, hence the term, ‘blockchain’.
Synthesising the information I used to help construct the step by step model, it’s clear that there are four broad advantages cited in using blockchain technology:
1. There is an increase in transparency and traceability of transactions – auditability and fraud protection in particular;
2. The accuracy of tracking transactions is increased. There is more than one set of ‘eyes’ on the prospective transaction verifying its details;
3. A permanent ledger is created that cannot be tampered with or retrospectively altered (faults get corrected by adding another transaction to a block that gets added to the ledger);
4. As the process is decentralised (assuming no one entity has >50% of the processing capacity), all digital and free of inter-state interference, costs in processing transactions are lower.
So there we have it, blockchain in a few steps and its benefits. Yet, we’re not done as we still haven’t touched on what’s in it for the ordinary end user.
If 89% of all statistics are made up, then I’d wager that 99.999% of the global population don’t know - or even care - about Bitcoin or its blockchain lovechild. At 7.38m transactions per year , blockchain is still dwarfed by the circa 390m total non-cash payments made globally. Centralised or decentralised, transactions are a way of life to the public – suggestively at the mercy of a complex, mostly hidden world of networks, wires, legislation and acronyms. Most people just want to know that a request is carried out and where money is involved, that it is sent or received safely and that no one hacks their account. Does that sting a bit? Perhaps, but you cannot argue with the sentiment.
To make all this relevant for users, what we need to do therefore, is to frame and contextualise the potential benefits of blockchain thinking into real end-user benefits.
Examples of usage
With a focus on the consumer sector, there are three emerging examples that could help us all explain why blockchain and its approach to decentralised transactions/ requests could be a good thing for end-users.
Example 1: Financial Services, e.g. Banking. A case of cheaper transactions.
Recent ‘Faster Payments’ legislation has seen most ordinary interbank transfers get down to a 2-hour window. However, larger interbank transactions can potentially take much longer – days – for clearing and final settlement. For example, selling units from an investment fund, moving large sums for a house purchase, etc.
Because of the blockchain approach to decentralised verification and spread of the processing power across timezones, transaction times could be reduced to minutes and would also not have to worry about processing ‘up time’; this means true 24/7 processing is within reach. It could also mean seeing buying something like a music track with a embedded contract - i.e. each payment for a track would automatically distribute the correct % payment to the singer, drummer, producer etc.
In addition, as blockchain removes 3rd party intervention (the trustless point), blockchain offers the prospect of ultra-low fees for transactions as centralised processes tend to have different parties taking a tiny cut ‘here and there’.
However, that also means there is no backing out of a transaction. Like cash, once the money is handed over the only person who can refund you is the person you paid. Also, if the transaction time is not instant, its use in physical retail scenarios (i.e. down the shops) isn’t viable.
Example 2: Voting, e.g. in elections. A case of transparency, security and faster results.
Image credit: Example of electronic voting system taken from 'Election Watch Victoria'
Imagine watching a graph of election results being generated in real-time. Think of being able to know the outcome of a large, national vote such as a General Election or Referendum, at the closing of polls. No need to wait for David Dimbleby’s update at 5am the following morning. Blockchain thinking offers this as a prospect.
The most current high profile example is in Australia where the State of Victoria is considering running a tamper proof, digital vote, where the State would issue unique digital ‘keys’ to allow the casting of voting preferences.
In a submission to the Victorian Electoral Matters Committee, Tim Adamson, the Australia Post State Director (Victorian Government and Tasmania), stated that:
"A ballot would be cryptographically represented within the blockchain, with each vote linked to the voter through their preference choice stored within the blockchain in a way that anonymises and protects that information from being publically accessible."
In a country where voting is compulsory in federal elections, this could be one to watch. Blockchain enabling a stronger democracy through a voting platform? Unless you’re a dictator of one party state, this is a good thing. Could voting by an app on the way to work with instant results be within our grasp? That’s the kind of access and transparency that is definitely 21st Century.
Example 3: Health, e.g. records. A case of always ‘on’ records wherever you go.
Today, if you physically relocate out of an area, your health records don’t go with you, aside from your GP records if you’re on the ball. So, say one day you turned up in A&E 300 miles from where you lived and were unwell enough to not be able to give various (and new) health professionals prodding and probing you your medical history in a moment of real need?
In today’s scenario, medical professionals would have to track down your GP records, even other previous hospital records perhaps from other tiers of medical access that they don’t have immediate rights to, or know about – that takes time, access, you - or they - may not have.
A service based on blockchain thinking would offset this issue to the end benefit of the patient. If all records were decentralised, encrypted and shared with invited and moderated providers (aka the network), those who needed it could access your relevant history to help any decisions; especially useful if you were incapacitated. Sounds familiar? Recent IT and NHS history aside, the principle of blockchain offers a route (back) in to this idea. As one of the advantages of blockchain is of course being ‘borderless’, the benefits are obvious. No region to region limitations. No tier to tier constraints, in theory at least.
Of course, there may well be other examples out there, especially around wider ecommerce and transport applications, but the three above go some way at least in demonstrating the breadth of potential use.
Not all plain sailing
So, it all looks fabulous, right? Well, not as such. I’d be churlish in writing this article to ignore some of the issues I found in my digging that suggests blockchain needs to address before going mainstream in our transactional lives. There are certainly challenges to work through, too, if blockchain is to become a standard consideration in designing experiences, particularly around the context of data inputs, exchanges and follow up journeys.
Cyber security concerns exist over large networks and converting processes into blockchain would literally take megawatts of energy due to the processing power required. It would also cost a lot of money and the processes would need to be integrated into broader strategies and interactions. Also, being a ‘without borders’ concept, it would struggle to go mainstream as some say it might, without some form of regulation. Completely trustless? I am not so sure.
One to watch
As a takeaway, I believe we’re seeing the beginnings of an underlying technology but without the mass market interface resolved, quite yet. It’s a proven technology with potentially wide reaching – positive – implications and so I believe that the wider integration of blockchain is an obvious development to watch.
The potential impact on individuals’ overall end experience from a service using blockchain may be hard to quantify right now. However, some big players in large volume transactional services, such as those in Financial Services and at Government level, are getting involved – just Google around and see for yourselves ;-).
Definitely expect it to be in the detail of technical conversations in the next few years. The broad technical architecture may be proven and with its ‘for the masses’ ethos, how it transcends through to the front-end for users en-masse may be all to play for.
I hope that this look at what remains a lesser known subject goes some way to helping the debate sound a little more user centred, a little less scary perhaps. If you’ve got a view on blockchain and what it might offer, please get in touch.