How Coinbase works

August 19, 2020

From a user experience perspective, buying, storing, trading and selling cryptocurrency—like Bitcoin—is still a pretty rough experience.

There’s a steep learning curve, terminology to understand and a regular supply of horror stories about hackers stealing cryptocurrency to make the experience uncomfortable for most.

Coinbase is on a mission to change that.

They want to make buying cryptocurrency feel safer and simpler, in the hope that it entices new investors, who would otherwise be put off by the idea of managing their own digital wallet.

But how could the user experience be better? Is it good enough?

Key takeaways

🐎

Avoiding the ‘get started’ trap.

🧏‍♂️

Why you need a feedback architect.

👨‍🦰

Be aware of the header.

Case study

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3 UX takeaways

1. The 'get started' trap

The Coinbase app really doesn’t have any onboarding. But, they do have something that I’ll refer to as the ‘get started’ trap.

A ‘get started’ trap works like this:

🙅‍♂️

1. Lack of onboarding

The user is left wondering what to do.

🤞

2. Tempting action that promises ‘help’

A CTA that says something like ‘get started’ or ‘learn more’.

🤯

3. Pushes you in the deep end

The CTA doesn’t offer guidance at all, and just starts an action. i.e., making a payment or choosing a monthly subscription.

In effect, this is where something promises a helping hand, but is nothing more than a shortcut to doing what the company wants you to do.

After signing up to Coinbase—and verifying your ID—you’re greeted with this very tempting ‘Get started’ button.

But clicking it doesn’t offer any help at all. Instead, it immediately asks you how much Bitcoin you’d like to buy. And, it defaults to Bitcoin—removing the choice about which cryptocurrency you’re interested in.

This doesn’t help you get started with Coinbase, and the CTA is nothing more than an illusion—an onboarding trojan horse.

The key takeaway here is that Coinbase’s users probably do want to buy some cryptocurrency—that’s why they signed up. 

But they also want to understand how Coinbase works, and to be sure that it’s the platform for them, before entering their card details.

If Coinbase is going to keep capturing new users, they’ll need to appeal to people who haven’t already decided that they’re ready to purchase Bitcoin.

🐎 It's a trap

If you don't have any native onboarding, then don't just put up a 'Get started' or 'Learn more' CTA, and expect users to jump straight into buying something.

2. Feedback architecture

In the physical world, you almost always get feedback which lets you know if something worked or not—without any additional effort from that item’s creators. 

For example, if you used a faulty vending machine, which didn’t dispense your drink, you’d know pretty quickly. You wouldn’t need to see an error message—the lack of drink is your error message.

But with software, someone needs to be the architect of this feedback. These error messages need to be created and implemented.

When these moments haven’t been implemented properly, you end up with a confusing and broken experience. This is exactly what happens when adding a new card to your account on Coinbase.

Click 'add card':

Then:

You add a card, see a spinner and then get put on the homepage—without any attempt to tell you if adding your card was successful or not.

I don’t need to explain why this is bad UX, but rather I can point to a few reasons why this type of mistake is so common:

📋

1. Volume of possible states

The number of possible outcomes for a medium-sized SAAS product is enormous, and it grows with every new feature.

🔬

2. Inadequate testing

Maybe you can add your card in 4 different places, but only 3 of these journeys were tested at the last deployment.

🤷‍♂️

3. Unclear responsibility

This types of UX mistake will often slip through ‘job role’ cracks. Is it the designer’s job? The product manager’s? The developer’s?

🧏‍♂️ Feedback architecture

We take the physical world, and all it's feedback, for granted. When building software we need to proactively create feedback for every possible outcome.

3. No surprises, please

As a designer, I always aspired to create something unique. Perhaps a new homepage layout that nobody had seen before (and that didn’t just copy Stripe).

But, the truth is: designing the best experience isn’t about being unique, it’s about being easy.

And guess what feels really easy to use? Things that feel familiar.

As an example; which of the two designs below do you feel is easier to use?

Option A

Option B

Objectively, I could put forward a half-reasonable argument why the second option is okay. (It’s not better, but I’ve used an extreme example on purpose).

The point is, we’re so used to keyboards being at the bottom of the page, that any deviation from this design would be confusing, a shock and very difficult for people to come to terms with.

These rules are often unspoken, and mostly subconscious. But, here’s one that I think you’ll appreciate: almost every app screen can be split into two sections:

😴

1. The header

This is where predictable stuff goes. Like the company logo, back button, page title, breadcrumbs and the device settings (battery , signal etc.).

🍯

2. The actual page

This is the bit that I should pay most attention to.

This isn’t true all the time, but it’s true often enough that when people use apps they don’t typically even read what’s in the header. 

Which is where Coinbase make a mistake: the only way you’d know that you were buying Bitcoin on this page, is if you read the page title—which is in the header.

The natural first-viewing of this screen is messy, because people try to work out what they’re doing from the body of the content, and eventually work their way up.

I’m not suggesting that you can’t put things in the header—not at all—rather, that the main body of the page should also make it clear what you’re doing.

👨‍🦰 Be aware of the header

People don't expect important and unique content to be in the header. Try and avoid using the header like this—use it in the way people expect it to be used.

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