In the last few years, there has been a lot of discussion about Web3, blockchain, and cryptocurrencies. Even more so about the potential changes in socioeconomic dynamics that may arise and the implications they may have for our future as humanity and the future of our planet. But what role do we, as designers, play in this movement, and how can we better reflect on our practice to create a more promising future for all living beings?
(or what is Web3, anyway?)
To better understand the concept of Web3, we need to look back and understand what came before it. In 1989, a group of scientists led by Tim Berners-Lee created the World Wide Web, or what we now know as the Internet. With over a decade of development, its function was to allow the sharing of technical information — among scientists and institutions worldwide – and its connection through hyperlinks (links that allowed us to go from one page to another).In the years that followed, there was an opening to the public outside the academic world, although the shared content was still not very interactive, functioning mainly as a reading space. This embryonic phase of the Internet is what we now know as Web1, and it was during this time that big companies were born, such as Google, in 1998, whose mission was to organize all available content and facilitate its access.
In the second phase of the Web, we — the users — stopped being mere spectators who passively consumed information, to ourselves creating and sharing content. Therefore, Web2 — a term coined by Darcy DiNucci in 1999 in an article titled Fragmented Future — encompasses most of what we understand as the Internet today.
The creation of social networks is the most obvious example of this movement. Here, the user experience (UX) design plays an essential role because the use and adoption of certain digital products highly depend on the experience they offer in addition to the problem they intend to solve. Moreover, we witnessed the creation and colossal growth of technology companies with sophisticated algorithms and the power to "monopolize" our attention. As Angela Ching wrote in her 2022 article Design principles for web3, "the internet has become more centralized, dominated by a few big monopolies, and we have begun to question the ethics of data use, security, and privacy."
And that's when Web3 comes in: a set of technologies and tools that contribute to a more open, interactive, decentralized Internet focused on the people who use it. We can then say that Web1 was based on access to information, Web2 on interaction and data sharing, and Web3 on decentralization and on the evolution of the user's role, which is no longer the "product" but has ownership of their own information.
Therefore, the goal of Web3 is to solve the problems created in Web2, such as the lack of transparency, security, privacy, and the centralization of power in large entities. To do this, in Web3 we use decentralized networks, or blockchains, in which no single party has control over the data or the power to limit or restrict access to the network. Control power is no longer centered on specific entities but shared by all members involved in the network.
The big idea behind this new phase of the Internet is to allow the existence of a more transparent digital environment, more beneficial to everyone inside it.
(or what is inherited from what has been done)
Despite the inevitable differences, when we design user experiences for Web3, we must still consider the best design practices for Web2 and what we have learned. The list of best practices to consider is extensive, but the most important ones to highlight here are perhaps:
- It remains important to conduct research with users to understand their real needs and whether what we are creating will contribute to resolving them.
- The interfaces we design should be intuitive and easy to use.
- We should strive to use easily understandable terms.
- It is essential to opt for familiar elements that allow us to smooth the learning and adaptation curve (for example, when showing the value in cryptocurrencies, it is also advisable to show the conversion to a fiat currency, such as the euro or the dollar).
- It is crucial to guide users during the learning process because there is still a high chance that we are designing their first contact with a Web3 product.
(or what we need to consider to create change)
One of the key challenges of being a designer in web3 is creating user interfaces and experiences that are intuitive and easy to use, despite the complex underlying technology. This requires a strong understanding of both design principles and blockchain technology.
One of the major obstacles to the mass adoption of Web3 as a whole is its enormous difficulty in use by people who are not very familiar with it. That is where we as designers can and should have a more active role, taking more responsibility for what we create, and trying at all costs to face problems head-on and explore new possibilities, to truly be agents of change.
It is always complicated to imagine what does not yet exist and solve problems whose solution has not yet been found. But it is our function to experiment and, through trial and error, try to blaze a trail and find some answers.
Based on this and the topics mentioned above, there are certain topics we need to pay close attention to when designing for Web3:
- Designing for the decentralized web means considering security and privacy and ensuring that user data is protected.
- In a flow, showing the next steps is fundamental. In Web2, this was already a good practice, but now it must be seen with the utmost attention, so that new users understand the entire process, do not have so many fears, and feel more welcomed.
- Transparency is not just a beautiful word. It is a pillar of this new phase of the internet. Consequently, we must include it in strategic product and design decisions. For example, when designing transactions, it is crucial to bring visibility to the different gas fees and their implications on transaction time.
- The blockchain is immutable, so irreversible actions are really irreversible. We have to show users that some actions can have disastrous consequences, such as the total loss of their money, and minimize, as much as possible, their chances of committing them.
The ethical issues
(or looking inward to find answers)
The topic of ethical issues surrounding Web3 would be a theme for a full article in and of itself. There is a lot to discuss on this subject, but in this context, I would like to focus on two points that, in my opinion, are a good starting point for a deeper analysis of this topic.
Firstly, it is very easy to be deceived by extravagant ideas and beautiful presentations. This happens both in our role as designers when we are called to work on a new project, as well as potential users or investors of a certain product or project. It is not exclusive to Web3 but is particularly common now since we are still in a very embryonic phase where the line between what is possible and impossible is thin and regularly changing. Especially in our role as designers, we should pay attention to the projects we choose to be involved with and do preliminary research on them and the team behind them. Although this may not prevent unforeseen events, it will make us much more confident in the project and the team we work with. It must happen since our work as designers on a project with the wrong motivations could harm many people in the future. As Victor Papanek said in his book "Design for the Real World", "there are more harmful professions than design, but only a few." So we must be aware of our power and use it according to our own values.
In addition, various problems that are currently being addressed using blockchain could be solved with Web2 solutions. So why not use more stable and accessible technology for the general population? Is including buzzwords like Web3, NFTs, and metaverse to attract more attention to the project (and, of course, more money) worth what we will lose with that decision? Why invest in Web3 solutions when the problem itself does not require it?
As designers, we must have critical thinking about what is being asked of us and intervene when we believe that the solution found is not the one that best fits the presented problem.
Much more could be said about Web3 and all the topics that are related to it. There is beauty in what is left unsaid, containing infinite problems waiting to be solved, possibilities to explore, and, above all, space and freedom for experimentation. I believe it is a bit like Web3 and the thinking of what the design practice could be in this new phase of the internet: uncertain, sometimes chaotic, filled with doubts and fears, but always hopeful and confident in the possibility of a fairer and freer internet. It is up to us, designers, to do our part.