Functionality and Usability in Web3 Applications

  • Commentary
  • November 6, 2020

The discussions surrounding usability are omnipresent within the blockchain sector. In such a relatively immature and initially niche space, there exists an understandable yearning for acceptance into the “mainstream.” Often, projects are assessed on their abilities to maintain not only large users bases, but ones that boast high numbers of otherwise non-crypto-native clients. Given its widespread familiarity and comfort with existing, user-friendly Web2 applications, this population is likely to demand a high degree of usability from decentralized applications in order to adopt them.

This sentiment is central to arguments made by Chainlink Labs’ Alex Roan in his recent article, “How to Create the World’s First Mainstream DApp.” Roan’s overarching message is that, in order to achieve an attractive level of usability, developers need to “hide the plumbing.” That is, dApps should mitigate the perception of complexity by offering a user experience similar to that provided by Web2 applications, such that end users may even be unaware of the distributed nature of the application. Roan argues that extensive disclaimers and the need to utilize third-party extensions intimidate users with complexity; he asserts that core features of blockchain networks, such as the ability to hold one’s own private keys are of little importance to mainstream users, who would happily sacrifice the provable ownership for the ease of using a traditional, personalized password.

While Roan is correct to say that usability is crucial to adoption and the lack thereof is indeed a hindrance to the sector, one could argue that he falsely presents usability and functionality as existing on opposite ends of a spectrum. One may instead view these two qualities as possessing an interdependence that is largely downplayed in current discourse. For example, the author offers the following advice to dApp developers: “Think like a bank. Banks don’t show off the internal plumbing of their systems and get users to sign off every little decision, they obfuscate it so that you don’t need to worry. They handle the heavy lifting, users don’t see it.” However, it is only possible for banks to disguise the complexity of their internal systems due to public trust, which stems from their track records as well as assurances provided by banking laws and the FDIC. With dApps, especially in DeFi, these systems are unproven and recourse is unlikely in the event of malfunction. Thus, in many such cases, usability must be accompanied by functionality: the complete obfuscation of complexity may often only occur once dApps have demonstrated reliable functionality such that users may trust these systems on their faces and do not need to review their architectures to assess risk.

With this in mind, one might also do well to consider a protocol’s composability when assessing its ability to attract mainstream users. Though not directly appealing to users, composability enables developers to build Web3 applications that are better able to address the needs of mainstream consumers, as it allows for the merging and repurposing of existing technology. It is possible that this manifests as a dApp with improved functionality such that increases in usability may follow, or perhaps as a dApp whose functionality and value proposition appeal to mainstream users such that they are willing to accept lower usability. As the pursuit of a mainstream dApp continues in coming years, Smith + Crown will be observing the coevolution of functionality and usability, with a particular focus on the influence of characteristics such as composability thereon.