The sorry state of crypto UX

If we think normal human beings are going to use crypto products, we have drunk too much kool aid. We need to take a 180-degree turn in our priorities

When the COVID-19 started, a couple friends and me decided to start HelpDAO as a side project.

The idea was simple: leverage cryptocurrencies and DAOs to help vulnerable people in the current pandemic.

A group of 100+ community members quickly formed aroud the idea and helped make it happen.

It’s too early to say whether this initiative will actually help those in need now.

But at least it has succeeded in taking crypto UX to the extreme and exposing its pitfalls.

After helping ship this project for a few months, I came to this conclusion: if we think normal human beings are going to use any of this, we have drunk too much kool aid. We need a 180 degree turn in our priorities.

Before jumping into the issues, I want to say: much love to Wyre (we shared accelerator and they are a lovely team!), Ramp (whom I invested in), Mooni (like the product and founder), Fortmatic (whom I’m generally a fan of). Also much love to Ethereum (which has very idealistic people inside its community) and Aragon (which I’m biased about).

A wonderful journey inside Web3

When the COVID-19 pandemic started, it broke my heart to see how vulnerable groups might be affected. And I mean affected not by the virus itself, but its side effects — including another global recession.

So the idea with HelpDAO was to use all the awesome technology we have created — stablecoins, DAOs… — to empower local groups of people to help those in need. Instead of having a few very tight and slow-moving non-profits, we could unleash thousands of help squads across the world.

Beautiful idea, isn’t it? It goes very well with the idea of the whole Web3 space in general — to create technology to bring fairness and freedom to the world. So I wanted to see if crypto could truly live up to its promise.

Spoiler: today, it does not. And it probably won’t unless we start caring about people in need, and not just ourselves and our little community.

A non-so-wonderful list of hiccups

I walked through multiple HelpDAO flows with a non-crypto user. From here on, this section will be a narrated version of that experience.

Great, this is understandable by humans! So far, so good. I want to donate and help homeless people!

Wait wait wait. I just want to donate. What is DAI? Who am I sending this thing to? What is that 0xstuff in there? And what, 14% processing fee?? I thought this cryptocurrency thing was making things cheaper!

OK, I’ll try with my bank account, maybe it’s cheaper. I want money to go to homeless people!

Uhm, why do I need to send all my bank account transactions? Why will they be able to access it on a recurring basis (forever)? I don’t want that! Again, I just want to send 5 bucks to homeless people! And I read somewhere that the whole idea of crypto to is own your currency and data.

Well, at least let me see how this help squad is using their funds.

Damn it, weird 0s with Xs again. What’s that all about?

Oops, that’s a problem. How can I contact the developers? I just want to see how money is being used.

Well, forget that, I am gonna become a volunteer now and try to deliver food to homeless people myself. How can I cash these cryptocurrencies out after purchasing food with my cash?

OK that’s a lot of options. Cannot I click a couple buttons and receive this money in my account?

Dammit, I’m in Russia. COVID-19 is hitting extremely hard here and people are poor. I’m confused, weren’t cryptocurrencies meant to help those in need with flawed governments and economies?

OK, and what about creating a new help squad?

Cool, nice and easy!

$20 is steep and who is taxing me another $5 dollars? But OK.

WTF… I just paid $20… and now it tells me that I need $40? The app said it would take just $5!!!

This is exhausting, I’m out.

The underlying issues

  • Ethereum gas: This one is just outrageous. Since the gas market is dynamically priced, it makes it almost impossible for dapps to factor it into their customer acquisition cost (CAC). Even if you use meta transactions, someone still needs to pay an extremely variable fee.

  • Transaction times: For some things, 14 seconds is bearable. The problem is that it is rarely 14 seconds. Most likely it’s a couple minutes, and when you are unlucky, your transaction may be dropped and never happen. Nice!

  • Crypto onramp: We need Stripe for crypto. Enter your credit card, and that’s it. No crazy fees. No minimum amount.

  • Token names: Maybe Dai isn’t meant to be user-facing. Maybe it’s just the backend. Why not just call it dollar and be done with it?

  • Western-centric: What about Latin America? What about Russia? What about Africa? What about India? They need crypto more than we do in the west. Why aren’t we helping them?

  • Hex addresses: This one is relatively easy to use by using something like 3Box. Still, clunky for now.

On developer externalities

Let’s say I’m a talented developer. In fact, let’s say I’m a frontend and design wizard. I come to Web3 because I empathize with the ethos. I start building a product with a great UX. The product itself works and users understand it. But paying for gas, signing transactions, creating a wallet, onramp, offramp… It doesn’t even matter how amazing the UX of my product is.

That is really demotivating. Some developers will see the long-term vision and stay, but many will drop. It is not even about the SDKs or tooling for a particular platform — it’s the lack of a holistic developer journey. It’s thinking about our piece of the garden without thinking about the neighbourhood. But ultimately, you cannot skip through the neighbourhood just to get to your garden — you have to pass through the neighbourhood too.

How this experience changed my perception

As a founder, programmer and someone building infrastructure for Web3, I perfectly understand all these limitations. Some are technical limitations. Some are regulatory limitations. Some also come from an engineering/research-focused culture instead of a user/design-focused culture.

I do not blame any of the teams, companies or projects involved here. In fact, these teams are the ones working on the bleeding edge of Web3 UX. Yes, HelpDAO probably is the easiest way to donate money using crypto and the easiest way to create a DAO. Fortmatic, Ramp, Wyre, Mooni… they are all the good guys here. They care about users and try to improve their experience. It’s not their fault. That’s the problem. It’s everyone’s fault. That’s why it is so hard to tackle.

I do not have a universal solution. It is tempting to vertically integrate it all ala Apple and make sure the UX is top-notch. However, that misses the point of Web3. The best solution we might have now is to care more.

It’s tempting to just build infrastructure for our own industry and expect others to bridge the gap. And for sure, more and better infrastructure is needed. But we shouldn’t forget our endgoal. We shouldn’t forget that if crypto can be used by just a few, then we are just creating a new oligarchy.

Starting today, I will try to care more. I will try to prioritize building something that humans can use. The crypto industry can get cozy, and you can find yourself distracted by meaningless drama and self-flattery, but that won’t help society move forward. It won’t help people face this new recession.

If you are a skilled simplifier, consider joining the Aragon community.