A Usability Middleground for Blockchain Solutions - Authoritative Fallback Relays

Usability

Usability is part of the broader term “user experience” and refers to the ease of access and/or use of a product or website. A design is not usable or unusable per se; its features, together with the context of the user (what the user wants to do with it and the user’s environment), determine its level of usability.

A product's usability cannot be measured without the context of the user. In the case of blockchain solutions, the consumer could be other machines or programs as well! As a result, a blockchain product will have a different degree of usability to:

  • a human user
  • another program using the same standards & interface
  • another program not using the same standards & interface

Existing products often assume everyone to understand how blockchain works and that there will only be one standardised process. However, this assumption does not hold true and will only alienate the product from regular users and existing fully-functioning systems and processes.

Let's take a look at how and why we should design for human users and other systems, followed by how we can build more usable products using Authoritative Fallback Relays (AFRs).

Usability for Human Users

Designing a product for humans is tricky. Existing products tend to assume that their users have a wallet, have the ability to manage their private keys, have basic knowledge of how cryptography works, etc. Through my experience with real users, even a file with unfamiliar file extension could drive users crazy. How do you get regular users to manage an excessively long and cryptic string of characters - something we simply understand as private keys?

Expecting everyone to miraculously understand the underlying technology and implement the new workflow immediately impedes usability for regular human user. There are bound to be early adopters, the majority and the laggards during product adoption.

How do we then introduce layers of abstraction to shield the user from the complexity of blockchain? Just like how the browser helps a grandma navigate the internet without knowing how TCP/IP, routing, or even HTML work.

Usability for Systems Not Using the Same Standards or Interface

Surely one can argue that we can surely solve the problem through standardisation - by getting everyone to use the same product/interface/protocol/data schema! Right?

No.

We need to have the humility to admit that there is always an edge case that your product team has not considered, and it will be near impossible to design an all-encompassing product. There will be another similar product that does better than yours in a slightly different context or environment that you've designed your product in. There is bound to be a more competitive product.

How then do you design your solution to delight your users who interact with users of a competing products?

Authoritative Fallback Relay - Mimicking Existing "Solutions"

Mimicking existing interface, data schema or artefacts is one way we can introduce familiarity to our user. When designing a solution, we need to take an approach where users using your product will not be worse off, not even in scenarios where they have to interact with users of other products. In this case, it will be in your interest, as a product owner, to have a fallback mechanism to more familiar processes or artefacts.

Falling back to an existing non-blockchain solution does not mean creating another suite of 'general relay blockchain to solve all integration problem'. Instead, these relays need to be hyperlocalised and tightly coupled with the use case and must ingest or output real on-the-ground artefacts. In addition, the entity running the relay must be identifiable and be held legally accountable for their duties.

Example of AFR - Crypto Exchanges

Think of how a centralised, fiat-crypto exchange work. There is an agreement that if I withdraw x SGD (proceed from selling my BTC) from the exchange, I will receive x - y SGD in my bank account - where y is the processing fee.

Authoritative

This model will fail if the relay is not authoritative.

If the exchange is run by some teenagers, not registered as a company (local or overseas), or not held legally accountable to deposited funds, no users will trust the product/service.

Fallback

This model will fail if the relay does not fallback to artefacts that are currently used in the real world.

If the exchange was to present me SGD-Token instead of SGD I can withdraw from my bank, it will not work. It does not matter if there is a legal framework here that legally binds you to swap the token for real cash elsewhere.

Relay

This model will fail if the relay is not hyperlocalised.

If the exchange does not have a BTC/SGD pair, it will not work. If the exchange does not support sending a specific amount of money to a specific bank in Singapore, it will not work. If the exchange is not connected to the BTC network or the bank I'm a customer of (directly or indirectly), it will not work.

Essentially, the fiat-crypto exchange is an Authoritative Fallback Relay which worked! Yep, I coined that term up, bear with me.

Applying Authoritative Fallback Relay (AFR)

Now that we have seen an example of an AFR, let's see how we can use it in a use case like verifiable claims.

Verifable Claims

Verifiable claims issued to decentralised IDs is a great idea - if everyone is using the same version of it. With dozens of competing standards and technologies out there, it is hard to settle on one implementation of verifiable claims.

Imagine for a moment that you are an education institute, there are dozens of choices out there for issuing your education credentials on the blockchain. Examples are OpenCerts, Blockcerts, Open Certificate, etc. Committing to one means excluding yourself from others.

At this point, analysis paralysis has probably got to you.

Not just that, you will be introducing a whole new workflow and data format to your students and the human resource executives out there.

How many of them know what to do with a .json/.opencert file?

Spoiler: Not many.

Having an authoritative fallback relay at this point will probably help you in your decision making. Suppose that one of the implementations can:

  • generate signed .pdf document on the fly (signed by a consortium or individual institute)
  • be printed by authorised printing companies
  • be converted to other claim formats on the fly

How will that help you in your decision making? Firstly you overcome decision paralysis by knowing that you do not have to be stuck with one implementation allows you and your users to switch to other credentials format easily. Secondly, your users can still interact and fallback to more familiar artefacts such as pdf documents or physical certificates when interacting with the uninitiated.

Let me take this further and imagine how AFRs can be implemented to serve the 3 purposes above.

AFR #1 - Fallback to PDFs

Goal: Converting JSON certificate file (by OpenCerts & blockcerts) to PDFs

For this implementation, we can use Adobe's automatic PDF digital signature validation. We can create a simple serverless function that:

  • validates the certificate's integrity according to the validation method
  • checks that the certificate's issuer identity is a member of a consortium
  • generates and signs a templated PDF with the certificate data

With this function, recipients of the .opencerts (for OpenCerts) and .json (for Blockcerts) can convert their credentials to more familiar PDF document when needed for:

  • uploading scanned certificates in job portal
  • sending to oversea institutes for further education applications

AFR #2 - Fallback to Printed certificates

Goal: Converting JSON certificate file (by OpenCerts & blockcerts) to printed certificates

One example is for several institutes to share a printing service which one can receive his printed certificate with his certificate file. This could even be an online service which you can upload the document, make payment and the certificate will be on its way to you!

The process will be similar to the first AFR, except that the user will receive a physical certificate at the end.

Do note that it is important for the printer to be authoritative. The traditional way of achieving this is the use of:

  • high-grade certificate paper
  • holographic or hard to replicate seals
  • signature of important people

Notice how ridiculous validation of physical certificates sounds? Let's not harp on it at this point shall we?

AFR #3 - Fallback to Other Claim Formats

Goal: Converting JSON certificate file (by OpenCerts & blockcerts) to other (blockchain) claim format

Suppose that your students are now interacting with schools using uPort's verifiable claim. You can have a serverless function that does the necessary validation of uploaded certificate in existing formats and generate an uPort attestation on-the-fly and push this attestation to the requestor!

Your turn

Now that we see how AFRs can be implemented to make your product more usable to regular users, perhaps it's your turn now to try bring the 'blockchain' out of your blockchain product?

On Abrupt Changes

Of course one can argue that the use of these fallbacks will encourage the use of legacy document formats and discourage people from upgrading to better formats.

My personal opinion is that upgrading from a legacy software/document format is a progressive process, we need to allow time for existing systems and processes to be upgraded and people to be educated. Switching abruptly from one to another will result in strong dissent from people who are resistant to change.

In contrast, we can win over the hearts of would-be-opposition with familiar processes and artefacts. Followed by the introduction of small changes along the way - towards better processes - it can result in better adoption rate for new technologies.

Join Me

Are you excited about:

  • blockchain yarrr!
  • decentralised IDs and verifiable claims
  • building citizen-centric (and hence usable) products

My team at GovTech works on those, drop me a message at [email protected] if you are interested to be part of it!