Ethnographic Research and Effective Communication
My background is with User Experience (UX) Design. Usually this means making websites, software, or products as seamless, intuitive, and pleasing as possible for any project’s specific users. So when I joined a blockchain startup, MIMIR Blockchain Solutions, I figured UX would be the same as the rest of the tech industry. That’s when I realized how foolish I was.
What I realized is that this stuff is just too new and too complicated. I work at a company that is creating a P2P infrastructure where proof-of-stake bound blockchain connected nodes can securely host access to end users. This goes right over most people’s heads at first. If you really understand the nitty gritty of the details, you know that a vast majority of people are relying on centralized blockchain access infrastructure that defeats the purpose of decentralization (Infura, BlockCypher, Azure, etc.). This is a serious growing concern in the blockchain space, but the only people who really understood us early on were the extremely technical people. So what about everyone else? We still needed to communicate our mission to the masses, as it is imperative to build a community when launching a blockchain project. But think about the average person talking about blockchain. They sound something like this:
And that’s really what UX for the blockchain is: understanding what it takes to properly communicate your product or idea. So after several rounds of trial and error we found something that helped. I realized that we were using traditional UX strategies (user testing, persona creation, and information architecture) to solve problems in communication. And the above depicted cartoon displays this perfectly. The woman being pitched to asks “what actually is a blockchain?” How can you possibly expect to pitch an idea to someone who can’t even grasp the fundamental technology your project benefits from.
After many different efforts, we found something that worked for us. We started to call ourselves a Decentralized Ethereum Service Provider. Now, this didn’t instantly make everyone understand all the technicalities of what we were doing, but it helped lay the foundation for further communication. People were familiar with what a service provider was. This gave our audience an area which they could build off of in their own respective mental models. People could imply that we were trying to help provide Ethereum services in a decentralized way.
From here we had to create several routes for further understanding. We have an approach for the technical investor, the non-technical investor, developers, marketing people, academics, sales people, economists, journalists, tech-enthusiasts, evangelists, and even government officials (our company was called to present to the Joint-Chiefs-of-Staff about how blockchain could help the government).
Communicating with your audience is not easy in blockchain because of the several different levels of knowledge that you have to cater to. You will need varied forms of marketing material to succeed on your mission. On top of all that, blockchain technology is an area that you have to deeply understand yourself to be able to communicate effectively.
Fortunately, I had a lot of help. Our development team was always ready to help. It also helped that our CEO, Nicolas Fierro, was on the original core developer team for Ethereum in Switzerland. He had dealt with being one of the first to explain this stuff to people outside of the crypto community and witnessed the evolution of the public’s perception of blockchain. This was invaluable for the UX and marketing team’s abilities to properly understand and communicate our service.
The point here is that UXers can’t do it alone here. You will need someone with a great technical understanding of blockchain to assist when you need it. Naturally, someone on your team will need a great understanding of the technology for your project to come to fruition, so this shouldn’t be hard to find. You will need to rely on these people to educate you. And as you learn, you will notice what helped “click” with you. Since you have to learn all of this “crypto stuff” yourself, you will know what it takes to properly understand blockchain technology and its relation to your project. And I know, rule number 1 of UX is that “you are not the user.” Nonetheless, it is invaluable to be able to experience what it feels like to grasp ideas in blockchain to learn more about your user. Just make sure you know the difference.
Ethnographic research is essential for your communication. Since I’ve been through the struggle, allow me to help you with a small head start.
Understanding the Ethereum Community
In order to better understand the online communities of Ethereum, I created a brief ten question survey about Ethereum, which you can find here: How Much Do You Really Know About Ethereum?
I posted the quiz in r/ethereum on Reddit and, at the time of writing, received 100 responses. One of the most effective ways MIMIR has been able to organically grow our community has been by providing educational material. The purpose of this quiz was to find out if there were any areas which the ethereum community could greatly benefit from learning more about.
Our project uses the same proof-of-stake mechanics that will be rolled into Ethereum during the casper protocol. For our sake, and the sake of the ethereum community at large, we needed people to understand the difference between proof-of-work and proof-of-stake. But as it turns out, the community, for the most part, understands this much already.
89 out of 100 people knew what proof-of-work was and 95 out of 100 knew that proof-of-stake was coming in to replace proof-of-work through the Casper protocol.
So what do we need to focus our educational material on? What this survey revealed is that people weren’t as aware of other projects currently underway aiming to solve some serious future threats to the success of Ethereum.
Only about half the respondents could correctly identify all the new scaling solutions being built into the Ethereum Virtual Machine (EVM). But it wasn’t plasma and sharding that seemed to confuse most people. Most people recognize those two terms (they’re being talked about all the time). However, about a third of respondents didn’t seem to know the lightning network is also a part of the scaling solution for Ethereum. There is already a great deal of literature about plasma and sharding, but it seems like the public could benefit from more material explaining the lightning network.
The biggest area where the public could benefit however, according to our poll, was about Quantum computing. Quantum computing will make it possible for people to crack the signature scheme used on most blockchains including Ethereum and Bitcoin. Ethereum has already begun taking precautions against this by modifying the protocol to (soon) support custom signature schemes.
This is a pretty big deal. There is a piece of technology right around the corner that could threaten the integrity of many blockchains and Ethereum is at the head of the game for solving this issue. Yet only 22 out of 100 people were able to identify the sort of threat that Quantum poses to blockchain at large.
This made it an easy decision for us to focus on Quantum in our upcoming educational materials.
In the past, we knew that people needed to know more about scaling the blockchain so we made this video and received a great deal of positive feedback. Later, we learned that people had a poor understanding on the true profitability of mining Ethereum so we created this piece for VentureBeat. And when we found that people didn’t understand BaaS very well or the problems its centralized nature poses, we created this piece for Hackernoon.
The takeaway here is that you need to learn about your users before you begin making content. The more the community needed to know about a certain topic, the more effective the piece of content was at building our community. And when all of these pieces tangentially relate to your own product or service, you find that it helps them understand your project better as well.
Educating people about your product will necessarily require that you educate them on more than just what your project brings to the table. You have to set the entire blockchain table and provide enough information for an individual to realize your project is needed.
Keep learning about your users and keep trying to better your communications. Engage with your community and keep providing them with value.
If you would like to see the entirety of the survey results, you can check it out here
Authored By: Mustafa Inamullah, Creative Directer at MIMIR Blockchain Solutions
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