Exploring New Territory in the Crypto Frontier

Project Management, UI/UX Design, Wireframing, Lo-fi & Hi-Fi Prototyping
Project Manager, Designer
May 2015 - Aug 2015
Isn’t Bitcoin like digital money for like…drugs?
IDEO has a huge role in defining new user-driven applications in new technological frontiers. And that’s exactly what we did.

With the success of the Intrapreneur Lab, we launched the IDEO Bits + Block coLab. Instead of focused on specific problem areas within a company, we were exploring a new technological frontier: the blockchain.

The coLab ended up establishing it self as an independent business wing at IDEO and has had over 200+ members to this date.

In the World...
Humans + Bits + Blots (Publication) via Medium
7 Innovation Insights from an IDEO Design Entrepreneur by Diego Rodriguez
Watch the Series via Vimeo
Watch the Perennial Video via Vimeo

Embracing Ambiguity

Perhaps the scariest part of the design process is being comfortable in ambiguity. I believe that design sits at the intersection of pure creativity and reality, which means that there is some part of it that is left to chance, serendipity, and a-ha! moments.

Because we were exploring a completely new technology full of messy regulatory practices, confusing terminology, and lots of engineering code, it was the perfect opportunity to be thrown into a world of ambiguity and see how we can make sense of it.

We didn't know anything about the technology.

What is Bitcoin?

What is Blockchain?

Aren’t they kind of the same thing?

We started out as clueless as everyone else about the technology. It was all very confusing: everything looked like computer code, full of ridiculous terminology. What’s the difference between a digital wallet, keys, transactions? We had no idea.

It all starts with great research.

We had to start with the basics and learn everything. But the path to learn the quickest starts with great research. We had to hit a hard reset on everything that we knew, and became sponges to all information.

I led user interviews talking to experts in the blockchain space to understand the technology from a qualitative perspective, as well as the technical perspective. I also talked interviewed some people who didn’t even use smartphones to test whether or not I could teach them and synthesize the concepts that I learned.

We even undertook some real-world design exercises, where we would try to live off of Bitcoin for a day…which proved to be almost impossible.

Here's What We Learned

I found blockchains interesting because of two main things: immutability and decentralization.

Immutability means that things cannot be changed. One core characteristic of blockchain tech is that it is a publicly-available digital ledger. Transaction history is bundled into “blocks” and they are “chained” together so everyone can see.

This means that there is a single source of truth, so no single person can go into the backend and fudge with the numbers.

Decentralization means that everyone has access to it. This is another key feature that I found to be super interesting. The blockchain inherently creates more opportunities for people to access services they wouldn’t have been able to before including banking, communication, etc.

Bitcoin is the Bitcoin. Blockchain in the Technology.

If this is still all very confusing to you (and parts of it are still to me), I think the simplest way to look at the relationship between Bitcoin and Blockchain.

Bitcoin is the App and Blockchain is the Tech. The same way Email is the App and the Internet is the Tech. The same way Angry Birds is the App and iOS is the Tech.

Designing Protypes that Focus on Immutability

As a team, we knew that it was impossible to tackle all the complex features of the blockchain, so we had to make a crucial design decision to focus on just one.

We chose immutability because we saw a lot of use cases and opportunities to having a single source of truth: it would solve disputes in legal cases, transactional debates, and more.

Talk Less, Do More.

This was a mantra for our team. It’s a simple saying, but incredibly difficult to put into practice.

Sometimes we would find ourselves guilty of sitting in a room and doing white-boarding mindmaps or brainstorms for hours - without validating any assumptions with real prototypes and real feedback.

At one point, we create a prototype timer that would force us to draw out concepts, no matter how crude, just to start testing assumptions and hypotheses.

Taking a Hard Pivot

We were initially were focused on estate planning as a problem area. Immutability was a necessary characteristic of this business venture because it would save families a great of litigation costs, mediation, and headache.

But we quickly learned that the business opportunity was limited. The audience that we were targeting tended to have more exclusive access to resources and wealth - which was the anti-thesis of the other core characteristic of blockchains: decentralization.

However, as we re-synthesized our design research we learned that estate planning was finding a way to pass down family assets. We quickly drew a parallel with heirlooms, and were quick to pivot into a new concept.

Demo Day

At the end of the coLab, we had a final presentation day where we pitched our ventures and concepts, while demonstrating how their worked intertwined with blockchain technology. After the presentations, we had a science-fair like experience where professors, corporate leaders, and designers could have a more intimate conversation and ask questions about our concept.

I primarily worked on the interaction design and business models for the concept we called Perennial.


Heirlooms have always been a valuable part of family history. You might have an heirloom passed down from your great-grandparents - a key, a painting, a blanket. Sometimes family histories are passed down through oral tradition, stories that get passed down generation to generation.

But in our day in age, we are not only interacting with the physical or oratory world, but we are also living in a digital world. So we asked, “What happens if you create digital heirlooms?”

Perennial is a service that creates an immutable record of digital heirlooms. Users pay monthly for the app to store, manage, and view heir relatives’ digital footprint and memories to be able to have a more refined understanding of their family history.

Record your memories and pass them down forever.

Have you ever heard a story about a grandparent or family member and questioned whether or not it was true? In our research, we found out that people go to great lengths to find the truth behind their own families, which presented us a great opportunity.

The only example that comes to mind - although not realistic - is Nicholas Cage’s character in National Treasure. Ben Gates has to search for the City of Gold, just to clear his great-grandfather’s name. Talk about a crazy family history.

Immutability is a core component of Perennial. It uses the blockchain to serve as a single source of truth. Although a person’s records and data aren’t directly on the blockchain, a transactional index is put there so that a descendant can validate that part in the future.

For example, my kids would be able to tell that my Facebook post is authentic by validating it with Perennial, and know that it really was me. Not some bogus “fake news” post.