Bitcoin is entering a UI/UX Renaissance

Jun 17, 2024
“Good design, when it’s done well, becomes invisible.”
– Very few people in Bitcoin, apparently

One of Bitcoin’s perennial challenges is reconciling its uncompromising adversarial design with the reality that most new users in crypto demand a simple nontechnical onboarding experience. Other blockchains are prioritizing new user experience have as a core technical and cultural goal, but Bitcoin does not really do this at the technical level, creating a huge lift for Bitcoin onboarding.

Historically, Bitcoin’s “onboarding culture” has faced headwinds both internally (e.g. maximalism creating blind spots / Bitcoin’s contentious forks) or external — flashy new blockchains with giant marketing budgets and egregious decentralization tradeoffs.

However it feels like something is changing. Bitcoin is “fun again” and finally front and center across crypto mindshare. Ordinals were just the catalyst at the right time and place to kick off what appears to be a Bitcoin UI/UX Renaissance. In hindsight, it was obvious.

Bitcoin network fees now often represented with the “gas” icon 😢

The rise of the Browser wallet

Since 2020, most new crypto users have come into the ecosystem to trade shitcoins or NFTs by way of the Metamask/Exodus/Phantom suite of wallets. Because of this, the user experience for these products has been quite iterative and responsive to the onboarding experience.

In the past half decade the Bitcoin ecosystem hasn’t really seen much emphasis on replicating this experience for users. This changed post-Ordinals. In 2023 some of the most popular Bitcoin wallets were Unisat & Xverse. For example, Swan Bitcoin’s app has 50k+ cumulative downloads on Google play whereas Xverse had over 350k+ new downloads as of late 2023. While we haven’t seen published numbers we hear rumors their daily active user count for Xverse blows conventional Bitcoin wallet metrics out of the water.

Xverse, one of the go-to Ordinals Wallets

More-so are the interesting features that this new class of wallet have to design for. Ordinals-aware wallets face huge design challenges in communicating the user interaction with their actual outputs. “Normal” Bitcoin transactions have the luxury of simply choosing the most optimal cost-efficient outputs for the user for the desired transaction. In ordinals, it is extremely difficult to build intent-based architecture.How do you communicate to the user the nuance of dust outputs, nonfungible outputs, and the range of different address types. Mishandling could (and has) create major pain points to fresh users who frankly, just want to trade their JPEG & Bitcoin shitcoins.

The Market is validating wallets that integrate Bitcoin & Ordinals. The majority of user onboarding has been through newcomers to the Bitcoin ecosystem. In response to this user demand, giants like Metamask & Phantom have been working on Bitcoin integrations — almost unheard of even 2 years ago.

Explorer Facelifts

The average new ordinals user is considerably more interactive with Bitcoin explorer tooling than legacy users due to their daily proximity to on-chain activity. While I don’t have the actual numbers of user traffic for mempool.space, I am quite sure that one of the largest sources of traffic for the leading Bitcoin explorer are related to Ordinals & Runes. This phenomenon has driven tons of innovation across the explorer tooling landscape, particularly in the form of enhanced real-time information.

Mempool.space “Mempool Goggles” view

Mempool.space clearly has a cracked team behind it, with highly technical “mempoolfluencers” such as Mononaut rising in popularity due to their unique insights on transaction & fee activity on Bitcoin.

More interestingly, the mempool(dot)space-effect is happening in real time. We’re seeing several either direct forks or design inspirations from this explorer, largely targeted towards ordinals users. For example, Ordpool.space is a fork of mempool.space that highlights & shows inscriptions in each block.

Ordpool.space highlight + pop-out for an inscription

One of our favorite Ordinal explorers, Ordiscan, has taken things even further. Ordiscan began as a simple high-performant explorer showing what the latest inscriptions were & a wallet lookup tool. Since then Ordiscan has evolved to become essentially the mempool.space experience but for assets “on” bitcoin.

Ordiscan’s mempool.space design, but for ordinals

Ordiscan also breaks down transactions by Runes operation, essentially overlaying the Runes operations on top of an existing transaction output visualization.

Overlaying a Runes transaction over a Bitcoin transaction.

Compare this Cambrian explosion of user-focused design to the legacy Blockstream explorer, which isn’t really even the best explorer for their own Liquid network. Obviously there are different design goals & product prioritizations, but there’s no denying that there is a new class of Bitcoin explorer being built.

Bitcoin Design Community

Predating Ordinals, the Bitcoin Design Community has really started to gain traction over the past couple years. Without an Ethereum or Solana Foundation equivalent to bankroll marketing, Bitcoin has had to take a more grassroots approach to consensus on even simple things such as “brand standards”. This was the genesis of the Bitcoin Design Community. E.g. What is the go-to resource for suggested design principles for Bitcoin wallets? What does user-centric bitcoin design look like? What even is the hex color code for the Bitcoin symbol?

As Bitcoin crosses the chasm to where the majority of new users are nontechnical, this presents massive challenge and opportunity to UI/UX designers, visual artists, and graphic designers. The Bitcoin Design community has become a Schelling point for these folks. I (Charlie) got to see firsthand this project at the 2023 Bitcoin Product & Design Summit at Bitcoin Park. Discourse was not about soft forks, macro larping, or adversarial game theory, but rather over practical & actionable ways to communicate Bitcoin as it currently exists to a range of products, services, and users.

Even comparatively tired discussions, such as “what should be the symbol for sats” are still fun to discuss, as they fit into a broader discussion over “Bitcoin’s Visual Language”

The many interpretations of the “sat” symbol

Even comparatively niche topics get attention from the Bitcoin Design community, such as Silent payment addresses and the Bitcoin Layers project. The collaborations between technical & UI/UX folks are increasing even in “legacy” Bitcoin land.

Bitcoin “fading into” the background

Bitcoin still sticks out like a sore thumb. Udi may be infuriating, but he is one of the best user-experience realists. He’s right that “seed phrases suck”.

Bitcoin is entering a very interesting era. In some ways, the average user experience on Bitcoin is more technical than ever due to the close proximity of new ordinals users & their attention to coin control. But the market clearly wishes to fade those friction points behind an intuitive user interface.

The Bitkey wallet nudges this forwards a bit by reducing the user’s reliance on securing a seed phrase. “Seed Phrases are Sharp Edges” and it is likely that more bitcoin has been lost from mishandling seed phrases than exchange hacks.

Bitkey reduces the “sharp edges” of seed phrases

In an ideal distant future, Bitcoin fades far into the background and becomes invisible to the average human. It’s integrated across our energy production, monetary systems, and human technology. It feels like we’re on the cusp of one of the first Bitcoin Design Renaissance’s in a long time, maybe ever, and we’re looking forwards to it!

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