🪞 reflections: onboarding into "web3"
A guest piece by Maxwell Kanter
Between 2017 and 2021, I taught science lessons to 4th and 5th graders once or twice a week. I’d go into the classroom and teach an hour long lesson around science and the whole point was to help these students feel like scientists.
The big issue is that rarely do kids see themselves as scientists. Usually, they see science as something other people do. The whole curriculum was built around the premise that everyone is a scientist and that we all do science everyday.
In many ways, web3 is the same way. Many people feel like web3 is too advanced for them, that they aren't ‘the type of person’ who can engage fully with dApps and protocols or contribute meaningfully.
This is false, and a big part of web3 onboarding, much like my experiences teaching science, is around addressing these misconceptions. The work of onboarding is around increasing confidence, and instilling the fundamental understanding and tools someone needs to thrive in the decentralized web.
Recently, I’ve been focusing my energy on thinking about learning in the context of web3, both how people learn to engage with products and protocols, and how people learn the skills, mindsets, and dispositions they need to thrive in the decentralized web.
As crypto expands exponentially and new people join the space every day, web3 onboarding is an increasingly necessary art and science. At some point, we were all onboarded to web3. Whether it was alone through exploration, guided by a friend or YouTube video, or through a series of blog posts or subreddits. To onboard to web3 is to have the basic technical understanding to participate fully in the crypto ecosystem and the confidence to move forward and grow. To me, onboarding is focused on what it means to become a contributor and participant, not a speculator or investor.
“Onboarding to web3'' is also extremely vague. It encompses two different, though overlapping, types of experiences: learning how to use a product or platform and learning how to participate in the crypto ecosystem more broadly. The former could be referred to as ‘user onboarding’ and the latter as ‘general onboarding.’ Both are critical when it comes to mass adoption and actually building a better future through web3. From the user perspective, an intuitive and delightful user onboarding will unlock the true potential of consumer crypto products. From the general onboarding perspective, transformative experiences that connect the dots and provide a strong foundation will unlock opportunities for participation, building, and contributing in web3.
A fantastic example of a great user onboarding experience is this video from Friends With Benefits that walks users through how to download MetaMask, buy ETH, swap ETH for FWB on Uniswap, and then link a user’s wallet to their discord account. It’s simple, straightforward, and does a wonderful job of modeling the whole process.
General onboarding is your cousin Darrell who you haven’t spoken with since 2015 texting you and asking which crypto to buy, and you respond by saying which DAOs to contribute to. You know Darrell is really into Formula 1 and watching reality television, so you suggest he joins F1 DAO and hop into the Mad Realities discord server. After checking things out, Darrell realizes he really vibes with F1 DAO and “wants to buy an NFT membership on secondary.” Darrel doesn’t know what he means when he says this, so you walk him through getting set up with a wallet, buying ETH, and buying a F1 DAO membership on OpenSea. Darrell feels thankful that his cousin understands weird internet stuff, and he’s now onboarded to web3.
As consumer facing crypto products become more intuitive and UX friendly, the complexity of user onboarding decreases. Consider the iPhone, a product with very little onboarding. For the most part, anyone can pick up a new iPhone and begin using it without having to be onboarded. Currently, the remnants of developer-centricity in crypto products remains present, and the novelty of many crypto primitives continues to require intentional and elaborate onboarding designs. Over time, user onboarding will become less complicated as the tools and services become easier to tap into, and general onboarding will become synonymous with upskilling or developing hobbies.
Below, we’ll explore web3 onboarding from a learning design perspective, and consider best practices for creating the most meaningful and transformative onboarding experiences.
Planting and Watering Seeds
General onboarding is like planting and watering seeds. Growing seeds is creating structure for users or contributors to become familiar with, exposed to, and integrated within the decentralized web, much like connecting Darrell with opportunities for participating and contributing instead of investing.
Onboarding is instilling a fundamental literacy and fluency. Blockchains are new languages, both in how they operate, and how we talk about them. When learning a new language, sometimes it’s important to begin with the fundamentals first, and other times it’s most transformative to become immersed, to dive in headfirst. Learning the language of smart contracts, understanding esoteric terms and acronyms, and developing a fluency when it comes to transacting is critical to developing a holistic understanding of the space. The FWB video does an amazing job helping to instill a sense of fluency with crypto transactions. Creating space to learn and integrate these new concepts is critical during general onboarding.
Beyond language and transactions, general onboarding is connecting the dots. There are two types of dots that are connected during onboarding - dots that connect your personal interests and values to web3 and dots that connect various components of web3 to each other. For Darrell, connecting his interests and values to web3 is him connecting his passion for both golf with F1 DAO and reality television with Mad Realities. Connecting the various components of web3 together is Darrell realizing that NFTs gate access to both initiatives.
Connecting the dots between personal values and interests to various components of web3 is where the magic lies. This is powerful: it shows someone that they have a place here, and that web3 is for them as much as anyone else. For someone interested in environmentalism, connecting them with KlimaDAO or ecodao helps form a deeper connection between them and the wider ecosystem. This is finding one’s niche, finding a digital home, and finding a place to grow. Connecting the elements of web3 together creates coherence, and this coherence leads to confidence.
More confidence leads to exploration and better question asking. One sign of a successful onboarding experience is the asking of better and better questions.
Successful onboarding promotes self-efficacy. Without the confidence to continue, newcomers might remain stagnated. Self-efficacy is key to confident exploration, and this is the cumulative product of developing fluency and dots being connected. A sense of confidence is key for long-term success and further navigation, allowing new entrants, like Darrell, to join a discord, make friends, and ask for help.
Generally, if possible, a 1:1 conversation is the best place to start. Ideally, this conversation is between 20 minutes and 1 hour, and between a newcomer with an interest in web3 (your cousin Darrell) and a friend or acquaintance with experience in web3 (you). These conversations allow for fluency to develop, dots to be connected, and curated resources to be shared based on specific circumstances. 1:1 conversations are hard to scale, but when possible, they are often the best place to begin.
In terms of technical requirements for onboarding, a custodial wallet is extremely important. Wallets are usernames and passports, and getting set up with a custodial wallet is one of the most important first steps. Wallet hygiene is also critical, both around public vs. private keys, and also what it means to operate safely in the crypto space. Unfortunately, scams continue, and given new entrants into the space every day, more and more innovative scams target naïve users. For custodial wallets, MetaMask’s video in addition to the FWB video mentioned above does a great job of explaining the basics.
Once the wallet is set up and the basics are understood, it’s important to know what to do next! Whether this is self-directed exploration, listening to the advice of a friend, or following along a structured guide, successful onboarding is the start of a beautiful conversation. Two phenomenal resources that explore web3 onboarding are the Web3 Starter Pack and Beginners Guide to Blockchain.
Ultimately, onboarding is a positive sum game and it’s how you get from 0-1. Once someone is onboarded, their journey begins and they are ready to move forward, explore, and onboard others. Network effects are huge, each person onboarded onboards new people and the cycle continues. It’s a beautiful ripple effect.
We were all onboarded at one point, it’s how we got to where we are, and it’s how we are getting to where we are going. When thinking about onboarding, ask yourself, how did you learn about web3? When did it all click for you? How can you support that in others?
When designing an onboarding experience, I think it’s helpful to use a learner-centered design approach, which could be considered an onboarder-centered design approach. Learner-centered design, “…is the process of building learning experiences by focusing on learner challenges and building fitting solutions by working through an iterative process.” The learning design process (illustrated by Smart Sparrow) involves empathizing with learners, defining goals and objectives, ideating what the learning experience will look like, iteratively prototyping and refining the learning experience, testing it with users, and then reflecting. This process is probably most useful when designing a user onboarding experience for a specific product or platform, and is fairly formal, but provides a great structure for thinking through general onboarding as well.
The most important component of this cycle, in my opinion, is empathizing. When designing an onboarding experience, it is crucial to understand your users, where they are coming from and where they want to go. Do not make assumptions about your users or the person you’re onboarding, and if you have any assumption, validate them. As much as possible, strive for co-designing. One maxim I like is “Never design for your users, always design with your users.” Maintain a reflective and iterative process as much as possible, and always seek the input of your users and those you’re onboarding.
Every onboarding experience is a learning experience and deserves to be treated as such. The best learning experiences are accessible, optimally challenging, and transformative. The best onboarding experiences are the same way.
Begin with the question: what is the motivation for learning how to use this product or navigate the wider web3 ecosystem? Work backwards from there. Ask yourself what users need to achieve that goal. What fluencies, skills, or competencies are necessary? How can those be learned? And how can I support that learning?
During any onboarding process, supports need to be established. Whether those supports are an FAQ list, open office hours, or 1:1 mentorship will depend on particular circumstances. Everyone being onboarded needs support, and by understanding your users intimately, you can understand the specific supports they need most.
In addition to support, it’s important to promote just in time learning rather than just in case learning. Just in time learning emphasizes what is currently necessary for the task at hand whereas just in case learning emphasizes what might be necessary down the line. By promoting just in time learning, you support the contextualization of knowledge and skills by allowing onboarders to receive the support they need in the present moment. Over-burdening users with just in case learning leads to lower engagement and understanding, and this is not ideal when onboarding.
It’s also important to not skip corners when onboarding. There is a delicate balance between just in case learning and omitting key information for the sake of simplicity. Much like skipping corners in programming can lead to technical debt, skipping corners in onboarding can lead to ‘learning debt.’ Similar to technical debt, learning debt results from expedited onboarding and becomes exponentially more difficult to remedy. Onboarding creates a foundation for further growth and development. Like building a home, if the foundation is weak, the rest of the building will be unstable, and as you build bigger and bigger, it becomes increasingly more difficult to address underlying instability.
Finally, there is no need to reinvent the wheel. There are so many amazing onboarding and education initiatives who are thinking through this, and my advice would be to consult with similar organizations as you’re designing your onboarding experience.
Maxwell is reachable on Twitter here.
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