Why Design Thinking won’t help the user experience of DeFi

Design Thinking comes up short when trying to develop a better user experience for the next billion blockchain users, and maybe that’s intentional.

Zapper.fi interface — arguably top rated DeFi application for intuitiveness

Ok, let me set this up. I have been managing product development, user experience design, and engineers teams for over 10 years. Since 2013, my team and I spent more and more of our energy designing products for the blockchain and cryptocurrency industry. As a product design studio, you could not have hoped for a greater challenge than the frontier of decentralization and self-sovereignty, so we poured in. We also developed a subject matter expertise for the common (and not so common) interactions that a human with a blockchain throughout various product experiences.

In honing this expertise, we also identified common areas in the blockchain, cryptocurrency, and now DeFi experience, that modern product design methodologies would ultimately break down.

Now don’t get me wrong, I still am a subscriber of Design Thinking — I just found that in the cryptocurrency world (now DeFi universe), this tribal design practice couldn’t quite cut it. As you’ll notice while navigating the world of DeFi, more heuristic and self-discovery methods have become a standard in place of the more thorough Desing Thinking ways.

Heuristic methodologies in DeFi product design embrace the blockchain-native values of; user privacy, private key custody, and disintermediated speed.

With that said, in this post, I am focused on the self-custody experience — when you hold your own private keys and sign your own transactions vs. a custody experience — when the product, business, and platform hold your private keys and signs transactions on your behalf.

Let me walk you through some instances where holistic Design Thinking breaks down when building a crypto, DeFi, or otherwise blockchain-enabled project experience.

  1. User data — You want to know them, but they want to remain anonymous
Photo by Victoria Heath on Unsplash

When approaching a new product with Design Thinking methodology, the human (user) is at the center of your strategy. This can be challenging when designing a product experience on the blockchain, as users often have the goal of remaining as anonymous as possible.

An integral step in the Design Thinking process is building prototypes, testing notions, and collecting feedback from target groups of likely new users. When those users don’t want to be known, that can force designers to look to colleagues and their previously onboarded userbase, creating confirmation bias and echo chambers in your feedback.

Commiserating this challenge with a CMO at a top cryptocurrency exchange, she stated:

“how do I market and test new features when my customers want to remain unknown? We’re often forced to adopt safer strategies, using what already works vs. being innovative.”

Users have a growing desire for privacy on the internet and that can introduce a new challenge for product designers. That said, we think that personalized Web3 experiences will present some exciting solutions to this Design Thinking challenge going forward.

2. Opportunity cost — Human-centered design can take long to produce

Photo by Austin Distel on Unsplash

In a fast-moving industry like DeFi, with product teams racing to acquire a small set of active users, speed is crucial. While Design Thinking does have its own set of guerilla-like testing methods, you still need to have open participants for that testing. And, while rougher rapid prototyping can gather quick feedback, well-implemented Design Thinking is best served as indicative and high fidelity UI. Imagine testing a new feature that requires users to interact with the blockchain — they’ll also need to break out other apps and private keys to truly test. That’s a lot to ask for in a “quick” test. I’ll get more into that later.

Design Thinking simply takes more time and founders don’t often relish in taking that additional time when racing to slice into as much of the proverbial “market pie” before it’s gobbled up by competitors. The result is, to quote venture capitalist, Peter Theil, more globalization and less innovation. E.g. more repackaging of the same and less redesigning anew.

Design Thinking is methodical, thoughtful, and purposefully repeated over and over using things like prototypes to assure a perfect design at launch. It can also be an ongoing process, living throughout the entire customer experience (CX). These design traits aren’t valued as much as speed when crypto is in a bull run and users are eager to lay down bets with the products they’ve landed on first — no matter how cumbersome those product experiences may be to use.

3. Delight is simply proof — Success criteria is already low

Photo by Owen Winkel on Unsplash

Design Thinking is aimed at delighting users with a focus on the human at the center of that experience. But what about when delight is simply confirmation and proof that your experience actually happened?

Delight when using a blockchain-enabled application or DeFi exchange typically happens when it is confirmed (a number of times) in a block on the blockchain — when the user makes a choice, authenticates that choice, and confirms with others that the choice was immutably made. The ultimate affirmation is one written to the blockchain.

Key experiences in a product’s design can be memorialized in what the design world calls artifacts. Standard artifacts in blockchain-enabled product design are things like TXIDs, balance updates, and changing the blockchain’s current state. Sure, Design Thinking methods can be applied to add delight to some interactions, however, the experience is also shared between the user and the blockchain itself. This is what we might call a paradigm shift. Mindblown. The blockchain is a living breathing thing.

Perhaps we now need Design Thinking methods that are aimed specifically at the experiences that users have with the blockchain itself, vs. those had between other users and products built on a blockchain.

4. Secure is not intuitive — No proof is owned by a single brand or platform

Design Thinking is often used to improve an entire service design — experiences that jump from the physical to the virtual world, from brand to brand, and from platform to platform. But what happens when those jumps, exchanges, and handoffs aren’t well coordinated? What if they are purposefully uncoordinated to uphold one of the most key value propositions of the blockchain — security! The experience can get a little clunky and disjointed. As a reminder, I am focused on the self-custody experience — when you hold and use your own private keys, efforts go UP.

Fragmentation is commonly experienced when users move between products to safely use their private keys. This is true in the case of the Web3 user experience and connecting to an app with external applications and even hardware (wallets). The Metamask app has been one bridge in this gap, and for blockchain-native folks, it’s pretty awesome. The challenge is that product designers are forced to rely on the experience and functionality delivered by Metamask and other private key tools, returning to their product’s experience with as little disruption as possible to complete the interaction. So what happens when the user finds they are short on the ETH needed for performing their transaction in the product? To what other wallet or exchange will they then go to for replenishing that balance? Was an opportunity of timing missed? Will they bounce completely, never to return?

Those additional degrees of separation and not knowing where the user retreats to, leave Design Thinking processes with large incomplete gaps. I’ve worked on products that well-prepared the user for what lies ahead, but you simply can’t control the entirety of the user experience when a user holds their own keys. As such, If you guarantee security, you can’t always deliver intuitiveness and vice versa.


On the fringe lands of the blockchain, cryptocurrency, and DeFi industries, product design has certainly come a long way. To that end, the user’s experience has also been constrained — by the need to maintain a highly secure set of standards when interacting with a blockchain and for holding private keys. Opportunity costs have also played a role in foregoing Design Thinking for things like speed. Desires for more and more privacy keeps product designers guessing for what a user will want next and just who that next tranche of users will be. And, while Design Thinking is the gold standard for building human-centered products and user experiences, it can fall short when another important persona joins the foreground — the blockchain.

So what can you do with these insights? Broaden your design methodologies and stay curious, moving between disciplines as your business, product, and user demands it. Where Design Thinking breaks down, heuristic design methodologies and user-education must then take over. This combination of methods can give your users the tools, preparedness, and security preferences needed to interact with your DeFi and blockchain-enabled products delightfully.

Denver, CO based free-thinker, business designer, and technophile. What good is innovation, if no one can use it?