Why Blockchain Needs Design

This complex technology is going mainstream–and IBM wants to make it easier to use.

The global supply chain is incredibly complicated, with millions of ships and airplanes and trucks bringing goods thousands of miles across the world, crossing national boundaries, and changing hands along the way. If that’s totally overwhelming to imagine, that’s nothing compared to keeping the pieces of this system moving efficiently. The most baffling thing? Much of this unthinkably complex global system still runs on old-school forms of record keeping: namely, paperwork.


Blockchain could be the technology to change all this. Popularized over the past decade as the structural framework behind bitcoin, blockchain is a digital record of transactions that are cryptographically secured–effectively, a digital ledger that works a bit like a Google Doc. If another person adds to it, you can see the changes, and you know who made them and when. Many industries are moving to make blockchain part of their business, and it’s easy to see how such a technology could be used to understand the global supply chain, since it streamlines the complex network of transactions into a verifiable record that every member of the supply chain has access to.

But blockchain itself is technologically complicated, and people along the supply chain need it at different times for different reasons. For instance, someone scanning pallets of food at a warehouse is simply recording what veggies have arrived and when, whereas a customs officer at a major port needs to know where goods are coming from, where they’re going, and if they meet all regulations before giving their seal of approval.

As blockchain makes its way into the mainstream, it will be up to designers to temper its technical complexity with usability–in short, blockchain will need interfaces. IBM is in the early stages of creating them.

IBM uses a design thinking process to map out all the users for a single blockchain. [Image: courtesy IBM]

Blockchain’s Challenge: Enough Information, But Not Too Much

IBM launched its blockchain division in 2015, and has worked on 400 blockchain projects for individual clients like the FDA, BNY Mellon, the London Stock Exchange, and Dubai customs. But today, the company is launching a blockchain platform: an easy-to-use product that allows everyone in a supply chain, from customs agents to truck drivers to bank officials, to develop blockchain networks together.

In the global supply chain, banks, farms, and consumers are all interconnected. IBM wants to use blockchain to integrate information between all of the stakeholders. [Image: courtesy IBM]
IBM’s global design lead Krystal Webber provides the perfect illustration of why blockchain is such a radical leap from how the world runs today. While researching a proof-of-concept for a global trade and logistics blockchain, she worked on an early design for an interface that tracked a shipment from Kenya to the Netherlands. Just to leave the Kenyan port required 30 different documents–the signing of which required a bike courier to shuttle back and forth from different offices. And because paper customs documents are easily forged, they’re very difficult to verify quickly.

One proof-of-concept lays out a road map from Kenyan growers through the country’s ports to Rotterdam’s customs office and finally to the Dutch market. Under each step is all the documentation that goes along with it. [Image: courtesy IBM]
But Webber says that while blockchain can help with these kinds of inefficiencies by keeping documents digitally, that doesn’t mean users really care about the technology underlying the system–an insight that’s informed the interface design for IBM’s new blockchain platform. “Users are used to internet transactions being abstracted. When you buy something you don’t see the inventory work or shipping or logistics behind the scenes,” Webber says. “[The interface] needs to share relevant data with our users while perhaps distancing the user from the blockchain itself.”


Their design needed to make all the paperwork along the supply chain easily accessible for each person along the chain, presenting the right information at the right time–no small feat for Webber’s team.

Visualizing The Journey Of A Single Strawberry

The design team at IBM approached the platform the same way they approach any type of design–talking to users.

That was especially important when trying to solve the problem of food safety for a newly announced initiative between IBM and a group of food giants including Walmart, Dole, Kroger, and Nestlé. According to the World Health Organization, 1 out of every 10 people get food poisoning every year, leading to 420,000 deaths. But figuring out how fruits or meats become contaminated in the first place is a serious undertaking that typically requires companies to trace the food in question back to the farm it came from. This can take weeks of research, or more–in the 2011 outbreak of salmonella in imported papayas, it took two months for investigators to track down the source of the contamination. That means more people get sick, and companies waste food and lose revenue.


Noi Sukaviriya, the UX lead who worked on IBM’s designs for the food safety blockchain, spoke to retailers, distributors, suppliers, and food safety officials throughout the research process. She found that the people trying to track down where food comes from often rely on phone calls to distributors and suppliers, who can’t always provide information. There’s no way to know if the information provided is accurate or complete, and it can take weeks to find the precise origin of the food. It could be a world away.

But while blockchain collects all that information in one place, and ensures that everything is accurate, it doesn’t make parsing or organizing that information very easy. That’s Sukaviriya and her team’s job–to highlight the relevant information to the right person when they need it. “I don’t think that blockchain is what the users have in mind really,” Sukaviriya says. “They don’t really understand at the deep level what it will do. But what is important is the ability to get to the information that they can trust.”

IBM’s road map illustrates the supply chain roadmap for food, from orchard to packing house to importer to distributor to retailer, along with all the documents that confirm where the food went. [Image: courtesy IBM]
The road map interface lets growers, suppliers, and managers instantly trace a product back to its literal roots. In one example that traces strawberries from a particular supplier, the interface displays a map of the strawberries’ path to your plate, starting from the orchard to the packing house to the importer to the distribution facility to the retailer. By simply clicking on the information about the orchard, the blockchain interface shows all the documentation proving that the strawberries were shipped out on a particular date from that farm. The user would also be able to look at any of the other steps along the way, with the relevant documents attached. This visualization is the key to the interface, most of which is shared between IBM’s different blockchain clients. The rest of the platform is customized to each client.


But while the IBM designers want to make the process legible for all users by relegating the technology in the background, they also want to be clear that it’s blockchain making everything happen–communicating the trust clients should feel in the system. Sukaviriya says her team is playing around with creating some kind of digital stamp that would add an extra visual cue to users that a document can be trusted. Ultimately, Sukaviriya hopes that her design will make blockchain accessible for small, independent farmers and suppliers around the world so they can continue participating in the conglomerate-dominated global supply chain. “It seems all high-tech,” she says. “Our dream is to have farmers be able to put information in even though they [aren’t] high-tech.”

As blockchain becomes more deeply integrated into global trade, creating its interfaces is surely a design job of the future.


About the author

Katharine Schwab is the deputy editor of Fast Company's technology section. Email her at and follow her on Twitter @kschwabable


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