To Whom We Speak: Why Design Matters

A lot has changed at Stellar.org in the last eighteen months. With the recent launch of a website redesign, we’re taking a moment to reflect on our evolution. This is our design story.

One simple, tough question: What is Stellar?

Stellar is a financial platform that uses a decentralized, distributed database to create an indelible record of transactions. That very fact makes answering the question, ‘What, quite simply, are you?’ harder than it sounds. But this question is crucial whether you’re a consumer app or a developer tool or an enterprise platform. It’s crucial not just for designing a presence that speaks to your core audience but for understanding who your core audience is in the first place.

Behind-the-scenes star

In the current banking system, remittances and micropayments carry exorbitant fees, and remittances can take days to reconcile. On Stellar, transactions resolve in 2-5 seconds, and one penny covers about 500,000 transactions.

July 2016, stellar.org redesign
July 2016, stellar.org redesign

Stellar is not the new Venmo: The network operates on the backend of financial services and products. Stellar can facilitate b2b and p2p transactions, as well as transactions—such as merchant payments—between businesses and people.

Stellar, in other words, can make it simpler and more affordable for people everywhere to send money home, to make small payments for things like on-demand solar power, and to save small amounts for school fees or healthcare. Yet rarely do the individuals using Stellar to send and receive money need to know that they’re interacting with the network.

We’ve always understood our behind-the-scenes status from a technical perspective, but it took a while to translate that into a specific audience and relevant user-facing design. Here’s a look back at where we started and the path we took.

Come one, come all: The commons for money

A year and a half ago, our stated goal was to develop an agnostic financial product for general benefit: public infrastructure for money.

August 2014
August 2014

We designed the public infrastructure argument broadly, with the best intentions. Financial services disproportionately impact people’s lives. If you don’t have access to affordable payments or savings or credit, life is much harder and more expensive, and you’re less likely to have abundant opportunities to improve your situation. On top of that, digital currency might very well be the most effective solution to greater financial access, but it’s also notoriously opaque.

Our original idea, then, was that both the problem and the nuances of the technological solution should be comprehensible to the wider world. We wrote a summary of our consensus protocol white paper. We designed a graphic novel that explains some of the basic concepts behind consensus.

April 2015, launch of the upgraded network and materials for understanding consensus
April 2015, launch of the upgraded network

But appealing to a broad sense of the social good of public works was about as effective as trying to get drivers jazzed about highways and bridges. Infrastructure is necessary but not sexy. Perhaps more importantly, it doesn’t connote innovation or divergence from the status quo. And perhaps most importantly, we were shaping everything from our own perspective, where the Stellar universe looms large in every direction. As it turns out, accessibility of information on consensus protocols and distributed systems doesn’t matter if your users are asking a question that pertains to all new network-effect solutions: Is anyone at this party?

Refine for clarity (and humility): Stellar for developers

Stellar is, above all, a network-effect solution. The problem with the traditional banking system is that it’s siloed. Private financial institutions create friction and fees for customers who want to transact across borders or systems. Isolated technology and the associated costs of basic debit and savings transactions also eliminate any incentive to provide services for lower-income people.

“Bring[ing] the world together,” as we say in the early version of stellar.org above, is a rather imprecise way of articulating a solution to the problem created by the traditional siloed system. The infrastructure analogy is accurate—we need shared financial highways in order for money to move more smoothly. But Stellar is not a consumer app, and our appeals for better infrastructure still somehow focused on the end beneficiary, the person who benefits from the carefully planned and well-maintained highway system.

Even if the infrastructure analogy was accurate, targeting the individual driver was not effective. If we were ever going to reach a critical mass of end users, we needed to drive adoption by the people who build the roads. We needed to speak directly to developers.

January 2016
January 2016, focus on developers

So we built a developer portal and began thinking carefully about how to frame the Stellar network in terms that make sense to individual developers and people in small dev shops and startups—who knows where the next Venmo will come from, and why shouldn’t it be built on Stellar? And then we went to Nigeria.

Know Your Customer: KYC FTW

After nearly a month of field research and meetings in Lagos in January of this year, it became clear that our core audience for this phase in the organization’s growth would be financial institutions and consulting firms. These organizations have reach, and they have the capacity to bank millions of underserved people. What would they need to know about Stellar in order to move forward with adoption?

User research with current and potential integrators revealed that our attempts at neutrality—an “agnostic” platform, a universal financial network, total interoperability of currencies and systems—resulted in friction for our partners.

Us: ‘It’s a decentralized, distributed database! It can literally do anything! Build applications that serve everyone! Change the financial world!’

Our partners: ‘…’

If you build it, they will not necessarily come

There’s a huge temptation to build developer tools and just put the technology out there in the hope of traction within the dev community. But even builders need inspiration and concrete ways to apply powerful tools. We watched potential integrators struggle to hone in on a concrete use case. Without that framework, Stellar, even with its expansive functionality, was difficult for them to grasp and then sell to others.

So we kept iterating. We sat down and had a frank discussion about our organizational strategy and roadmap. We published that roadmap to hold ourselves accountable.

And this time we iterated towards more narrow, precise messaging with plenty of examples—something we had always avoided out of fear that the platform would seem less powerful than it is. Examined closely, that fear was really just an avoidance of constraints, which are always helpful.

We honed in on four specific use cases: low-value payments, remittances, mobile money interoperability, and agency banking, illustrated with short case studies from our current partners.

July 2016, focus on use cases
July 2016, focus on use cases

Research indicated that this use case-driven design approach resonated with partners, who could easily describe Stellar in their organizational contexts. One of our testers noted:

The whole money transfer business is about to be revolutionized…If I am a forward-looking CEO, I would say I joined Stellar because of the cost benefits, the reach. Some people might be afraid that Stellar might spoil business for us, let’s kill it. But I don’t think so. I think it will increase remittances to a country like Nigeria.

User testing also revealed that our original design ethos—come one, come all—was not only too general but also too specific. The comprehensible accounts of consensus protocols and distributed ledgers were intended for enthusiasts or would-be enthusiasts of distributed systems, a different audience from software and integration engineers at large financial institutions.

Armed with this awareness, we redesigned the Stellar experience to focus on what developers at financial institutions need in order to integrate quickly and what their stakeholders need to continue to make progress towards going live.

Design < > Strategy

In financial services, it’s rare to have a design team so closely involved with strategy. For us, dialogue with integrators about their pain points as well as exposure to their vocabulary and concerns helped shape both our organizational roadmap and our holistic user-facing presence.

There’s a reason that design is only ever iteration. As an organization evolves and meets milestones, it adapts strategically. We’re often speaking to a different audience at launch than we are two years later. And so we redesign.

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