I am a user experience designer, and I just heard about cryptocurrencies today. I was just trying to decide whether this is worth looking into, and it seems like there is a real question of ethics here. I want to know what the role of user interface and experience designers, proselytizers and such is for this kind of platform. Where is there room to be? I’m trying to figure out what is important about them, and where do I find a spot inside it?
I could do an hour-long presentation telling you about everything that sucks about Bitcoin design.
If you look at Bitcoin simply as a computer technology, you are missing the point. Bitcoin is probably the fifth change in the most ancient technology we have as a human species, and that is a technology of money. From barter, to precious metals, to pieces of paper (fiat), to credit cards, and then Bitcoin.
One of the elements of design is taking something that is new and different, and creating visual or linguistic metaphors, ways to make it accessible to people who has an existing paradigm in their head, and helping them understand it through metaphors by setting up expectations of behavior.
If we call it “Bitcoin,” what does that mean? How do you expect it to behave like? If you say this is a “wallet,” how do you expect it to behave?
For a user interface designer, nothing is better than taking a really strange, disruptive technology which represents the most important technology we use in our society – money, and changes it in a way that hasn’t occurred for more than five times in about two million years. So taking that technology and trying to explain it to people through design.
The good news for designers is, the attempts we have made so far to explain it through design, are laughably bad.
Let’s think of the name, “Bitcoin.” What should you call the most abstract form of money ever created? “Let’s call it a ‘coin,’ which is the most physical form of money ever created.” Well, that is not a good idea.
“How about we put the prefix ‘bit-‘ in front?” Well, in some languages that means ‘small,’ but do you want to associate that with money? In other languages, it means “I am a geek.” That should alienate anybody over forty years old!
What should we call the main user interface that everyone will interact with? The collection of keys? “Let’s not call it a keychain; let’s call it a wallet.” Because what you can do with a keychain, is make a copy of it. If you have a key to your house, and you make a copy, another person can get into your house.” But that makes far too much sense. Let’s call it a wallet, like the thing you have in your pocket that you can’t make a copy of, which actually holds all your money, even though a Bitcoin wallet doesn’t hold any of your money, and you can make a copy of it because all the coins are actually in the network.
These discussions go on and on and on.
Bitcoin is plagued by design decisions made by engineers. What greater challenge could there be for a designer, than to come in and fix all this mess?!
As far as work is concerned, the interesting thing is that this space has been generating tens of thousands of well-paying jobs. There are over $200 billion of investment that have flowed into this space just in the last year, in a time when, outside of this space, the vast majority of jobs are minimum-wage and unqualified. In this space, the jobs are creative, sophisticated, and highly paid.
If you have a “real job” that pays real money, I understand that. But I know people for which cryptocurrency has been their real job, and they have been earning “fake” money for many years now as well. They live happily with an income paid in bitcoins.
Let’s take example of my friend working. He is using a bank and bitcoin. Who do you think pays faster?
My friend sent the bank an invoice, then bank ask him for the SWIFT code. But soon after bank was closed, he needs to wait until the next day to call his bank. They gave him the SWIFT code. He sent them four pages of instruction. Bank make the payment, but nothing happened for two weeks, so he followed up with his bank.
His bank told him they can’t find the payment, so they asked him to follow up with the other bank. His bank was open, but other bank was closed. Then they followed up with other bank the next day, and they couldn’t find the payment either. They asked him to follow up with his bank, but his bank was closed again. The next day, he calls his bank again to ask where the wire transfer is.
They say: “You see, what happened is… this is a US dollar account, and they sent Swiss francs.” So you converted them friend asked?”
“No no, we can’t convert them. If the wire is denominated in Swiss francs, but the destination account is in US dollars, it can’t go in.”
“Well, can you give me the details of the wire friend asked?” “No, we can’t give you details about the wire unless you are the verified recipient. So please tell me, which company sent you the wire?”
He said, “Well, I receive a dozen wires every month. All of my work is international. I don’t know. Maybe this was the German wire?”
“No, it wasn’t a German wire.”
“Was it the Swiss one?”
“No, it wasn’t the Swiss wire…”
“Was it the English wire?”
“Oh, you’re getting warmer!”
This is some kind of bizarre, sadistic ‘Twenty Questions’ game with banker, in order to receive your money! Long story short, the wire didn’t come through. It was bounced back, which means they didn’t get it either!
He called them back and say: “The wire was rejected.” They said: “We didn’t receive it either. Well, call your bank because our bank is closed today.”
So they called their bank the next day, and then they found out that the wire has been “lost.”
Of course, this is what happens when you try to do banking with Botswana… Oh, wait, no. It was Switzerland, the center of world banking! And they can’t do a wire transfer.
They are still “looking” for the wire. It has been more than seven weeks. They haven’t received the money back.
So he told them about a very important American expression, which is: “NMP,” which stands for “Not My Problem.” He told them: “You still need to pay me anyway. Oh, you lost your money? Sorry, but you use the banking system. I use Bitcoin. That is why I told you to pay me in bitcoin.”
Instead, they sent him another wire, which took only four days to arrive. This happens to him with half of his payments.
Now his contracts say: “If you pay me in bitcoin, this is the price. If you want to pay me in anything else, then it is plus 20% – that is the fee you must pay for forcing me to talk to a banker for an hour per work.”
Contrast this with this experience:
He sits down and start sending to six customers, which have agreed to help me with expenses, and he shared out the cost with all of them. So he send out six invoices, in six different countries, with three different currencies. He send out these invoice emails, go make a sandwich, come back fifteen minutes later, and all the invoices are paid, paid, paid, paid, paid, and paid!
This was Saturday afternoon in the United States, and it was Saturday night in Europe. On a Saturday night, he had just been paid from six different countries and companies, in fifteen minutes. Ten minutes later, that money was in his account irreversibly.
To go back to the question, one of the advantages of working in this space is how fast you are paid. You will be paid no matter where you are working in the world. There is no such thing as: “We sent the wrong amount, so we have taken it back out of your account.” That can’t happen anymore.
As a professional, you can bill and work anywhere in the world, work with companies that work with any other currency, but use bitcoin as the international money of the internet.
I know that is probably not very appealing to you right now, but there are opportunities for designers. The work is very high quality and we desperately need good designers. You won’t be able to pay your bills in bitcoin at first. When you receive the bitcoin, you will need to convert it to US dollars or Euros or whatever you want, but that is very easy to do.
Since you must use an exchange, as the rule goes, do not leave your money on the exchange. Move it in, convert it, and move it out. If you have the keys, it is your bitcoin. If you do not have the keys, it is not your bitcoin!
That is the lesson we all learned from Mt. Gox. There were many exchange hacks since. Let’s try to not need to be taught that lesson again, especially since exchanges are starting to play dirty tricks.