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Balancing Security With Usability: A Look At One Crypto Company’s Evolution In Product Design

By

Daniel

Putney

WriterETHNews.com

Usability and security are a balancing act. ETHNews spoke with blockchain company MyCrypto to learn more about how it weighs the two qualities when making design decisions.

Both a seamless user interface (UI) and user experience (UX) are paramount to the success of any application. Individuals overwhelmingly prefer easy-to-navigate interfaces over clunky, confusing screens full of information they may not understand. A focus on usability is certainly a wise choice.

However, in the cryptospace, user security is arguably the most significant aspect of any Dapp or wallet service. With a technology based on cryptography and concerned with self-sovereignty, it's understandable that Dapp builders want to ensure the safety of their users.

Often, the relationship between usability and user security can be viewed as one of compromise, as the smoothest UI and UX may mean decreased security, whereas heightened security can lead to a less-than-friendly interface. What, then, is the balance to strike?

To try to answer this question, ETHNews chatted with the team behind MyCrypto, an interface for interacting with the Ethereum blockchain. The company has been public about the evolution of its product, specifically regarding how it has considered both usability and security during development.

Although UI and UX are important to MyCrypto, CEO Taylor Monahan noted that for now, user security carries "more weight." She elaborated:

"[We] optimize a little bit more for ensuring that our company, our team, our products, and our users are as safe as possible, even if it maybe doesn't have the most ideal UI. I think that at the end of the day, it does result in a better user experience because in my opinion, the worst user experience is one where people lose their money. If we could have a world where the process was super frictionless … [and] also involved no loss of funds, that would be the ideal."

During a presentation at Devcon4 titled "Unintended Consequences of Product Design," Monahan gave the example of an earlier iteration of MyCrypto. With this product, she said she had wanted the onboarding process to be quick and easy for users, but the simplistic process inevitably led to individuals not saving their private keys and thus losing access to their funds.

Since then, MyCrypto has adapted its interface in numerous ways to safeguard users. For instance, the website no longer allows users to enter their private keys, mnemonic devices, keystore files, or seed phrases, thereby eliminating the potential for hackers to obtain this information from the site itself. Also, visitors must click through a multipage module that shares important safety information, such as how to protect oneself from scams, phishing attacks, and loss. Both these changes were made to help ensure the safety of MyCrypto's users.

That said, Monahan admits that some people will skip the site's safety disclosure. That's why the team had a little fun when crafting the module. She explained:

"Once [users] start clicking through, you can start to speak to them in their own language. We use words like FUD and FOMO, we cuss a little bit, and it makes it so that it's very easy and conversational to read. Hopefully, they keep clicking, and I would say it's successful if they capture any of it."

Despite the safety disclosure being a significant feature of the website, the team unanimously decided that it needed to be curtailed. What was once 10 slides of information now sits at three to four pages. The shorter module provides a more digestible experience, according to Chief Marketing Officer Jordan Spence.

"We have a couple key points that you can absorb really quickly but still grasp what you're absorbing and why it's important," he said. "I think that's probably one of the biggest factors in having people still go through it and not be irritated and actually understand what's going on here."

This reduction in the safety module's content ultimately represents a balancing act. MyCrypto wants to maintain its security, but it also knows that a lengthy disclosure can be off-putting and burdensome to users, thereby adversely affecting UX. The company focuses on security, but it would not make sense for the team to completely disregard usability.

With examples like these, it may seem that greater usability would always lead to lesser security and vice versa, but the two aspects of product design do not necessarily oppose one another. Monahan provided the Ethereum Name Service (ENS) as an example of the complementary nature of these two attributes.

She noted that in making addresses easier to read and remember through short ENS names, it would be more difficult for individuals to mistype their addresses. ENS domain holders could more easily notice typos in their names than in 40-character addresses comprised of random letters and numbers. The ENS, then, offers a kind of win-win situation wherein improved UX intertwines (and directly contributes to) greater security.

MyCrypto has learned a lot about the balance between usability and security, but the company is still looking to improve its UI and UX. The team wants to include more individualized interactions, whether the user is new to the cryptospace or a veteran. Monahan believes the experience should not be singular but rather "a lot more concise, contextual, clear, easy, and fun."

In fact, Spence believes that efforts like this to ramp up UI and UX are "a natural next step in the evolution cycle for the [blockchain] industry."

In these early days of crypto, security is understandably a priority. Folks from outside the space are not going to be impressed by projects that are (or seem to be) unsafe. MyCrypto's general focus on user security aligns with this ethos. As Spence indicated, though, usability may become increasingly more important as the industry continues to develop and as more people enter the great big world of crypto.


Correction (11/6/2018): An earlier version of this article noted that MyCrypto had stored private keys, mnemonic devices, keystore files, and seed phrases on its website, but it had only allowed users to enter that information if they chose to.

Daniel Putney

Daniel Putney is a full-time writer for ETHNews. He received his bachelor's degree in English writing from the University of Nevada, Reno, where he also studied journalism and queer theory. In his free time, he writes poetry, plays the piano, and fangirls over fictional characters. He lives with his partner, three dogs, and two cats in the middle of nowhere, Nevada.

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