I connected SMS to a Blockchian. It can make your Blockchain app usable

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Many proponents of blockchain technology emphasize that one of the potential benefits of the blockchain is that it will allow the unbanked get access to services that are currently not accessible to them. The assumption is that a big challenge that the unbanked face is a lack identification. And that because they have no government-issued ID, this makes them unqualified for banking services since banks cannot perform the Know Your Customer (KYC) and Anti-Money Laundry (AML) process on these unbanked customers. The belief is that unbankedness is mostly an identification problem. This is true in some cases. I, however, believe that unbankedness is not just an identification issue but an access-to-technology issue, also.

I believe that unbankedness is not just an identification issue but an access-to-technology issue, also.

Problems with current Blockchain projects

Currently, there exist hundreds of blockchain projects who aim to bank the unbanked. Sadly, the majority of these blockchain projects and ICOs do not understand the needs of the people they are building for. IDEO, one of the most innovative and award-winning design firms in the world, recommends that to understand people, we should observe them in their natural environment. For example, if you are designing a new blockchain application to bank the unbanked in Nigeria, you should go to Nigeria and observe and talk to farmers who have no access to banking services.

What will observing users in their natural environments do for ICOs and founders? It will enable them answer questions like:

  • Do unbanked people really want to be banked?
  • Why can they not get an ID?
  • Is it true that they cannot get an ID?
  • Is the problem that they do not see the value of getting a government issued ID? Is this more of an access-to-service issue?
  • Do they have other important problems that blockchain can solve?

By answering the questions above, ICOs and founders will understand users’ needs and, in turn, build a killer ecosystem that solves a real problem: A blockchain ecosystem that users will love to use and pay for.

How to solve real problems with Blockchain

Does your blockchain solve a real problem? To answer this question, imagine. Imagine a farmer in Nasarawa state, a northern state in Nigeria. She owns a small farm and grows food for her family and sells the remainder in the local market to buy meat, fish and other ingredients. At the end of the week, she has some money left over. Armed with this money, every Sunday, she attends a meeting with other small farmers. This meeting is called Esusu, Adashe, or Ajo, depending on the Nigerian language you understand. She contributes a fixed amount each week. For this term, she is contributing N15,000 (Fifteen thousand Nigeria Naira or 41.70 US Dollar) weekly, and at the end of the year or in any week during the year, she can apply to get N 795, 000 (Seven hundred and ninety five Nigerian Naira or 2, 210.1 U.S. dollars). With this amount, she buys a farm equipment or starts a home-run side business.

Does your blockchain solve a real problem?

What you just imagined is the reality of many ‘unbanked’ people in Nigeria. Are they happy with the Esusu, Adashe, or Ajo? Hell yes! Can they borrow money if they need to? Yes! Do they feel fulfillment and satisfaction because of the community and weekly Esusu, Adashe, or Ajo meetings? You bet they get excited to go to those meetings! Considering these, what other benefits will you say opening a bank account will provide to them? Will a bank account provide a sense of community? Will the bank organize a yearly all-you-can eat and drink party for them? So what problem are we trying to solve with blockchain here? The point is that to solve the problem of the unbanked, we must observe and understand them.

The point is that to solve the problem of the unbanked, we must observe and understand the users whose problems we are attempting to solve.

User Research for Blockchain Projects

So, how do we understand prospective users if we cannot travel to a place like Nasarawa state in Nigeria? The obvious option is to hire people who live there and have them interview potential users and maybe take photos and make videos. This will work but it comes with a high price. A better approach will be to use a service that is affordable, and has a wide reach and also makes sending of messages in a users mother tongue possible. One such service is Viamo. With Viamo, you can create surveys in any language, schedule voice calls in different languages and learn and analyze what users want. The surveys and calls can be set up using drag and drop questions in an easy to use interface. Having seen what Viamo does and worked on the platform as a Fullstack Engineer., I strongly recommend it for blockchain projects that want to make a difference in the lives of people in remote locations.

Bringing Blockchain to places without smartphone and internet

The second question we want to answer is how can you as an ICO or Founder build a blockchain ecosystem that is accessible and easy to use? To answer that, let’s assume that you’ve done your user research with a service like Viamo and that you are solving a real problem that people are excited to try. Let’s also assume that you have a very talented team that know what they are doing and are not just bullshitting. How do you make your blockchain ecosystem accessible to the unbanked in remote areas with no internet access and to farmers who use phones like the old Nokia 3300 that supports only phone calls and SMS? One company that has tried to reduce the barrier to entry for using blockchain is KYC-Chain. I watched a demo by Edmund Lowell, KYC-Chain’s CEO and I was intrigued by the simplicity of using blockchain and a smartphone to open a bank account. They’ve done a good job and I am sure they are working hard to do better. The reality, however, is that people in rural areas will not be able to access the @KYC_Chain service yet. Many of the unbanked people have no smartphones or internet connection.

Using good ol’ SMS to save Blockchain

So, what should ICOs and Blockchain founders do to reach people without internet access or smartphone? My recommendation is to use SMS. Enable users to access your blockchain with SMS in their language. A very simple and probably insecure proof-of-concept that I worked on was using the Hyperledger Fabric Blockchain, a secure rest API middleware and @Twilio, I enabled users to control access to data that they own. So, they can give a user (userId) access to an asset (assetId). They are also able to revoke access to that asset. Here’s how it works:

When a user sends an SMS to the apps number, an API endpoint that I defined is called with the content of the message. A phone number is tied to the user’s blockchain key and a smart contract or transaction is executed. This is not a perfect solution but it is a start of something that can be enhanced to be secure and reliable.

In summary, as Blockchain developers, Founders and ICOs, we need to understand users by observing them, and we need to develop blockchain solutions that can be accessed using easily mediums like SMS.

Founders and ICOs, we need to understand users by observing them, and we need to develop blockchain solutions that can be accessed using easily mediums like SMS.

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