If you ask anyone in Web3 what the biggest hurdle for mainstream adoption is, UX is more than likely to be the answer. Many centralized Web3 platforms targeting mainstream adoption make everything appear as familiar as possible for this reason. They appear more like a Web 2.0 platform than a decentralized application. Crypto exchanges list cryptocurrencies as any other financial asset, and NFT marketplaces show ownership of NFTs in account views associated with email addresses.
Such approaches give their users a more familiar experience than what is currently a true Web3 experience. For many, their first experience of Web3 is when they try to use a native decentralized application.
At this point, they are faced with a Web3 wallet such as Metamask which is where the challenges start. I'm a fan of Metamask and what they've done for Web3, but given its market-leading position, it highlights the challenges many users face when they first onboard to Web3.
Key challenges of Web3 UX
1. Making users distinguish between different networks
First of all, users are presented with multiple blockchain networks with which to work. Should they be using the Ethereum mainnet, or another layer 2 such as Polygon, or an Ethereum clone like Binance Smart Chain?
2. Hexadecimal addresses
Their account may have a name, but beneath it is a hexadecimal string, representing the account address of the wallet. Unless you have studied computer science or engineering, you are unlikely to have any appreciation of what this represents. Yet at present, understanding the concept of addresses on Web3 networks is absolutely essential to doing anything.
Projects such as the Ethereum Name Service are doing a great job of removing this complexity, by mapping an address such as 0x8A8f93cEFC3D70d22b186e864d826ba6127A90C6 to myname.eth, but usage needs to be not just widespread, but ubiquitous. You never expect users of the internet to have to use IP addresses such as 220.127.116.11 instead of typing google.com. We have to get there with Web3. Nothing could be worse than what we have now — lengthy hexadecimal strings, that no one could ever type without making a mistake, and are only possible to memorise if you have a world-class memory.
The one upside of these strings being unmemorable is that it forces people to copy and paste them, but verifying them visually is very hard, and if some malicious software were to change them slightly, most users would be none the wiser.
3. Badly thought out contract interactions
This brings me to the next point, which is interacting with smart contracts or sending funds to another account. With bank accounts, people just about have the patience to verify the destination account details as they consist of digit groups of numbers covering account numbers and sort/routing codes. Even if a 34 character IBAN code is being used, at least there are groupings within the number, with Web3 addresses we have none of this.
When interfacing with smart contracts, the UI is even worse. As soon as a user has to do more than one interaction, they're likely to switch off and stop paying attention to the specifics of what they're doing. It's just like someone agreeing to the terms and conditions of installing software, they're not interested in the specifics of what's happening as long as they obtain the end result they're interested in. They need a simple transaction verification process with very limited information required for them to double-check the proposed transaction.
4. Seed phrases
In addition to all of the above, not only do users have a password to manage their wallet, but also a seed phrase they need to use to recover the wallet. These multiple layers of complexity illustrate just how high the barriers to entry are for moving into Web 3.0 fully, and until they can all be addressed or abstracted away, we're unlikely to see the widespread adoption that we are all waiting for happening.
Just like with other parts of the rapidly evolving Web3 ecosystem, there are a lot of companies making leaps and bounds in streamlining user onboarding into Web3 and in certain respects are already solved problems. The most forward-looking approaches use email address credentials that are tied to a Web3 wallet. Two firms that are leading here include Magic and Web3 Auth.
This email login-based approach presents a familiar interface to regular web users, behind the scenes creating a non-custodial wallet. This makes use of multi-party compute or equivalent techniques. This also has the added benefit of removing seed phrases from the user's product experience.
A downside is that users are still having to log in with usernames and passwords (social authentication mechanisms can also be used), which in itself is inefficient. However, given the majority of internet users are familiar with this approach it's likely the best approach for a seamless migration until we can tie logins to some decentralized identity or similar.
Ways to resolve Web3 user experience challenges
Returning to the other challenges, such as hexadecimal everywhere. The Ethereum Name Service (ENS) does provide a solution analogous to the Domain Name Service used by websites. The issue is it's not being embraced fast enough. You can see many proponents on Twitter who add their ENS name to their Twitter profiles which demonstrates just how popular it is. However, we need exchanges and wallet providers to push their users to use them by default.
Every time a user wants to deposit or withdraw funds they should be presented with an ENS address instead of a hexadecimal string. We see QR codes already being used for this purpose, which works well. But we really need these providers of core services to push their users to use ENS. ENS is very well supported by the Ethereum community, but users are not being pushed to use it by default which is a shortcoming of the current adoption we see in my view.
Preventing funds from going to the wrong address is a harder problem to overcome given the immutable nature of a blockchain ledger, and I cannot envisage a solution that doesn't involve some sort of middleman. But as human-readable addresses and identities can be tied to wallets this will help simplify the process and reduce the attack surface.
Interacting with smart contracts is also challenging, and there are various standards such as EIP-712 (this facilitates the displaying of structured type information on transactions) that help reduce the obfuscation faced by users when authorising transactions. Simplifying this experience will remain the task of the developers and designers of decentralized applications, but it's so important that they minimise interactions from a user's perspective. This will ensure when a user does need to double-check a detail they will have the focus required to do so and not simply be clicking a sequence of dialogues that pop up with unnecessary levels of detail.
Finally, in terms of managing all of the different networks a user needs to interact with. Views of assets across networks should be consolidated so that users have a singular view of all their assets. Networks should be viewed as sub-accounts or similar from the user's perspective — they know there is a network associated with a source of funds, but it should all be viewed in a single place, with the network only coming into it like a routing code with a bank account, or even better, automatically inferred from the ENS name or other network equivalent. Some wallets are going down this route, but again, we need the most popular platforms to lead by example here.
There are a lot of great minds focused on improving the Web3 user experience, but if we can get the leading platforms and apps to embrace some of these changes, I believe there'll be a much larger community feeling ready to onboard to Web3. This will provide the following benefits for users:
- They won't have to care what underlying network they're using
- They won't have to deal with hexadecimal or seed phrases
- Contract interactions are minimal
- UI/UX tailored for users not developers
- Technical jargon made easier to understand
If you’re interested in learning more about Web3 UX, I encourage you to have a listen to the discussion I had with Michael Sanders of Horizon Games, who are investing heavily in streamlining Web3 UX for gaming.