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The Blockchain Industry Must Build for the Real Needs of Real People

When I started building blockchain products, I frequently said blockchain is a database; it doesn't save the world.

Technology on its own rarely does. Every technology's value hinges on the functionality and utility it brings to everyday people in their environments.

Tori Samples is a senior product manager at the Stellar Development Foundation.

Consider another technology that once seemed new and frightening: the humble elevator. The elevator is ubiquitous today because people appreciate its value for a specific need and context. Elevators are not a panacea, nor are they the only way to move up and down. However, most people use and trust elevators because the industry followed basic product principles every builder should emulate.


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The average user can't explain how a metal box moves them through vertical space, but they see what elevators enable for them. What was once a new, frightening technology has become an uncontroversial tool with mass adoption. Over time, the touches developed to make people comfortable — elevator music and a human operator — have gone by the wayside in favor of consistent regulations and widespread trust.

I study the deployment of products like elevators because mass adoption is the key to blockchain no longer being perceived as scary and/or inconsequential. I build products for everyday people who are often marginalized due to factors outside of their control: where they were born, lack of financial infrastructure, conflict or natural disasters.

Products must be undeniably useful to be adopted by people in these environments. That's why I currently lead the development of the Stellar Disbursement Platform, the bulk payments product that powers humanitarian cash assistance, cross-border payroll, government social programs and paying unbanked gig-workers and creators. That's also why I previously built Boss Money, a digital wallet for refugees and migrants in Africa.

Perhaps the biggest lesson learned from building and deploying blockchain products for the "real world" is that users care about how products benefit them, not about the tech underneath. Somehow, the crypto industry is still figuring this out. We spend too much time advertising the blockchain equivalent of elevator pulleys and levers (the raw tech) when we should be emphasizing value and function.

If a blockchain product makes a person's life tangibly easier or better, they will likely use it. They'll never be sold by an explanation of a specific layer 1’s consensus mechanism. As a former founder, I know it can be fun to jump to the inner workings of a product. I also know that none of my customers — mostly refugees in Rwanda — would say they were sold by those inner workings. They used our wallet because it allowed them to send money to people in other countries, hold multiple currencies and avoid carrying cash across borders. Let the results speak for themselves.

There is a learning curve to building and deploying tech that can only be overcome with human touches. You need both compelling evidence and human touches to overcome initial resistance. Assuming a product benefits users, remember that fear is usually the driving factor behind slow adoption. Blockchain has impeccable evidence behind it but the industry still needs to instill confidence.

See also: The Benefits of Building Apps On-Chain | Opinion

The tech world generally views appeals to humanity as inefficient or unnecessary. However, product leaders should allocate resources towards initiatives that bring new experiences closer to what users already know and trust. You're not committing to these initiatives forever; you're just opening the door to the next wave of users. This could be staffing a phone line with real humans, keeping an office as a proxy for trust, showing up where users congregate or mimicking legacy tools with skeuomorphic design.

Ultimately, builders must trust users to make their own decisions. Just as we ask users to trust us and our products, we have to trust that people are the experts on their own needs and circumstances. Most situations fall into one of three categories: global (all users can be expected to make the same choice consistently), unique to an individual (the same user will make the same choice consistently) and context-specific (the same user may choose differently over time).

Knowing how people utilize your product can help you position it for mass adoption, but it doesn't allow you to decide when a person should use it. Once you've made the technology available and beneficial, trust people to make the right decision for themselves. Assuming you've validated you built the right product, and your messaging is effective, live at peace. Your users are just as rational as you.

Adherence to these principles, plus time, will pave the road for blockchain products to become as ubiquitous as the elevator. And like the elevator, these products should simply help users reliably move about their lives with more ease and freedom than before.