Trust Experience (TX), Hardness, and Design Thunking

You know how physical products offer satisfying clicks, thunks, snaps and other manifestations of asymmetric and/or irreversible physics phenomena (a system settling into a potential well, clean fractures, melts)? Specifically, consider:

  1. The thunk of a car door as it shuts
  2. The clean snap of a good bar of chocolate
  3. The neat melt of a good spot of solder
  4. The “rings true” test of metal purity (gold, silver coins)

All these things convey trust in some way that manifests as a signature sensory affordance. Asymmetric and irreversible physics phenomena are a hard-to-fake source of certain attributes. In the 4 examples, the trust conveyed concerns: Build quality, material processing quality, alloying precision, and metal purity. The asymmetry or irreversibility may be part of the user experience, or in the production process and revealed by elements of the user experience. Untrustworthy qualities are signaled by tells: a rattling door closure or “ringing untrue” for example. There are plenty of other examples, such as the soft snap of Lego bricks (irreversible injection molding tolerances), compliant mechanisms such as plastic strap buckles clicking neatly, the wavy patterns of wootz steel knives, the muted thud of a good hammer, and so on. In each case, there is hard-to-fake sensory evidence that the asymmetry or irreversibility was either introduced expertly into the artifact during manufacturing, or designed into the user experience in a “true” way.

I call these testable attributes or affordances “thunk” (with a well-designed car door as the prototype) and the process of incorporating it into the artifact design thunking.

Thunk is central to the trust experience (TX) of a physical product.

I’ve always felt non-crypto digital products try hard but never hit it. Cosmetic elements like making things look “3d” or adding sensory feedback like clicking sounds doesn’t really work, and in fact accentuates the fakeness.

Skeuomorphism may have aesthetic merits, but lacks the substance of asymmetric/irreversible phenomena and is generally a dead-end design approach for digital TX. Digital brands have to rely on basic branding.

But crypto transactions (both financial and non-financial) somehow seem to offer a true digital equivalent. The act of using a public/private keypair to sign a message or transaction that is then irreversibly committed to a blockchain has a powerful “thunk” quality. Or to take a more familiar example, the lock icon in an https URL has some limited thunk (even if you don’t understand SSL certificates, you learn to trust the icon in a non-brand way)

But unlike in most physical products the “cryptographic thunk” of digital experiences is not a sensory but intellectual experience. Cryptographic thunk viscerally connects you to the source of hardness underlying a transaction (and the hardness may or may not come from physics asymmetry or irreversibility). But you don’t need to understand the math of elliptic curves to experience “cryptographic thunk.” You just need to experience the feeling of an irrevocable commitment being made; of locking in an intention and experiencing the consequences. Specifically the consequence of there being nobody to complain to if things go wrong. There is no customer service! You’re responsible for your actions! Things can work exactly as intended by design and still go wrong for you with nobody to blame but yourself! It’s an experience of true adult risk-taking.

Cryptographic thunk is a special case of a commitment thunk that happens to be digitally realizable and enforceable.

There is nothing essentially digital about commitment or even cryptographic thunk. Physical actions can have the same feeling — signing a document, watching an official affixing a rubber stamp, burning a bridge/burning boats, legally binding speech acts such as being sworn in for testimony or saying “I do” while getting married. Shuffling cards, calling a coin toss, or rolling dice as part of the commitment process has a frisson of cryptographic thunk. The point is to viscerally convey the sense of making an irrevocable (or costly to revoke) commitment under uncertainty. There are fake versions too, just like there are rattling doors and coins that don’t ring true. Saying “cross my heart and hope to die” is a fake commitment thunk unless you’re sincerely religious. Swearing on your mom is usually ritual posturing.

Crypto designers often see the irrevocability of blockchain actions as a flaw that needs to be mitigated, minimized, or designed around. While this is true of some aspects — social recovery through account abstraction is a good example — it is important to note that cryptographic thunk is a feature, not a bug. It is in fact the single most important feature and affordance of blockchains. If you don’t want “rings true” cryptographic thunk in your UX you probably shouldn’t be using a blockchain at all. Blockchain-based products such as custodial exchange accounts or the new Coinbase smart wallet that offloads key-management to Apple’s iCloud keychain (“self-custody with Apple characteristics”?) do not offer any thunk. They externalize the procedural risks marked by the presence of thunk to trusted third parties.

Commitment thunk in general, and cryptographic thunk is an acquired taste, and a very adult one. There is fear and anxiety around any non-trivial commitment and this is as it should be. You’re pulling a trigger and accepting responsibility for consequences under uncertain conditions. Young children are usually not capable of appreciating the significance of commitment thunks and cannot handle the responsibility, just as they generally do not enjoy bitter or spicy tastes. This means there is a process of acquiring taste and literacy in learning to appreciate and use well-thunk-through products, just as there is to learning to enjoy beer or spicy food. The crypto industry has to do more than just get better at design thunking. It has to teach users thunk appreciation in the process of onboarding them to crypto. To learn to love the feel of making commitments at fine-grained click level. To give up the learned helplessness of mindlessly clicking TOS cultivated by Web2, and approach digital signatures with high agency and attention.

It’s time for the experience of being online to feature adult responsibilities, risks, and acquired tastes.