MHCI Capstone

How Blockchain And Cryptocurrency Can Change Academic Research At CMU

The Challenge

Our team was tasked to design and develop a CMU Coin experience that utilizes up-to-date blockchain technology by discovering new markets and presenting a platform that will allow for fluid cryptocurrency data collection.

After months of research and designing we developed a decentralized data storage solution that uses blockchain and cryptocurrency technology and helps CMU researchers run human subject research.

Project Website


Xi Jin
Dylan Smith
Thomas von Davier
Tiffany Zhu

My Role

UX Research
UX Design
Project Management
(Rotating Roles)


Jan. - Aug. 2019

Solution Highlights

We were handed an extremely open ended brief: “Discover, design, and implement valuable and tangible use cases for blockchain and cryptocurrency technology on the CMU campus that could then be repeated across other problem spaces.”

To summarise, after months of research and testing we answered the brief as follows:

Project Deliverables

To illustrate the idea for our final deliverables we created an interactive prototype of our app cBase, which demonstrates the user flow of how researchers would be able to recruit and compensate through this APP, and wrote a white paper, explaining how this blockchain database system works as a business.

Use the button below to see our a clickthrough prototype of cBase and read our whitepaper.

cBase PrototypeWhitepaper

The time that we were given for this project at school were only enough for us to finish creating the use case and a clickable user flow. After graduation, I continued to work on the interface for cBase. Hoping to make it more friendly for first time users.

New designs, trying to bring a more polished look


This project is very different from many of the other UX design projects we've done. We think of our process as a backwards design process: Instead of starting with a problem, we started with a technology solution. And needed to find an appropriate problem for it to solve.

A Backwards Two-Part Process

Since we do not have any pre existing products or platforms to compare to, our design process highly relied on research and user testing. We like to think of our process as a two-part process:

  • Phase 1: Generative research + Ideation --> Testing for usefulness
  • Phase 2: Design + Iteration --> Testing for usability

Phase 1: Generative research + Ideation

Generative Research
None of us or even any of the professors on campus have a lot of experience in cryptocurrency or blockchain. So we tried to gather information from a lot of sources. We not only read papers and interviewed experts on blockchain and cryptocurrency. But also about how small scale economies are formed, how markets work and even on trust and generosity in economy. We also interviewed experts on cryptography, economy, computer science... 

Methods We Used Generative Research

  • Secondary Research
  • Literature Review
  • Experience Prototype
  • Concept Mapping
  • Desirability Matrix
  • Expert Interview
  • Affinity Mapping
Organizing the information we've gathered with concept map

Our research helped us understand the technology: what blockchain is and how cryptocurrency works. However there we could not find much information about starting a cryptocurrency economy or a working cryptocurrency. Most of the cryptocurrencies are only used for trading or facilitating large international transactions. There is currently no working cryptocurrency on a consumer level.

So what could we do if we want to know what it means to create our own cryptocurrency at CMU?
We decided to run an experience prototype and test it out...

"Crypto Party" in numbers
[Left] Role cards we gave to players; [Right] My teammates running the help desk

One night we invited 25 of our colleagues in our MHCI program to a "Crypto Party". We set up a Slack channel to be the public ledger of everyone’s transactions and established a syntax to do transactions. We assigned different winning goals to our participants, ran mini games and provided items to trade through out the night. Through this experience prototype we wanted to simulate a market with a digital currency and observe users' behavior.

At the end of the party we had over 200 documented transactions. And from the exit surveys, interviews and observations at the party we generated 211 interpretation notes. We ran quantitative and qualitative analysis for all these data using tableau and affinity maps as seen below.

Quantitative and qualitative analysis for experience prototype data

We summarized our findings from all our research into a paramyid shaped model. This model serves as a guideline for creating an application with cryptocurrency and blockchain. According to our research if our final solution follows through all these guidelines it should be a sound solution for this project. So we head into ideation.

Guideline model for creating a cryptocurrency product

Now that we have an understanding of the technology, we needed to ideate some uses cases. Our initial strategy was to sample as many experiences CMU students have on campus as possible and see if there's an opportunity to apply blockchain and crypto currency.

Methods We Used for Ideation

  • Parallel Design
  • Crazy 8
  • Storyboarding
  • Speed Dating
  • Customer Journey Map
  • Contextual Interview
  • Diary Study

Using the Crazy 8 method, we brained storm many scenarios. Then using contextual interviews, diary study methods and customer journey maps to map out these experiences and envision how blockchain can be applied.

Examples of the customer journey maps we made after studying CMU students financial behavior

After we came up with some ideas, we drew storyboards of our ideas and ran speed dating sessions with students on campus to test their affinities to the systems we are proposing. To our surprise, the response we got the most were "Why do you have to use cryptocurrency and blockchain for this?"

Examples of some of the storyboards we made

We realized that by adding blockchain and crypto currency all our proposed solutions does not bring unique value to the users. To many of our users using blockchain is an over kill. To which we agree, we did not want to design for the purpose of designing.

This reaction sent us back to the drawing board, we had to start ideating again and think about why do we have to use cryptocurrency and blockchain? This is when we cam across this quote from Dr. Neha Narula:

She helped us realized that we needed to reframe our research question. Initially we were thinking about "What can we do with blockchain and cryptocurrency?" and now we realized that the real question that we need to ask is "What can't the current currency do that can be solved with blockchain and cryptocurrency?"

From previous research, we've learned that researchers on campus who run human subject research on campus have 3 major pain points:

  • Recruit: It is hard to recruit participants
  • Insecure data: Researchers are responsible to make sure that participants' personal data is secure
  • Insecure money: The current method of compensating with cash is also not secure

These 3 pain points lines up perfectly with the properties a blockchain database and cryptocurrency can offer:

  • Recruit: A blockchain database can enable researchers to actively search potential participants and send them invites
  • Insecure data: Data can be stored in an encrypted blockchain database that is only viewable for people with permission
  • Insecure money: Compensating with cryptocurrency makes sure that the funds are secure and transferred once the research is done

Phase 2: Design + Iterations

We were quite excited to start designing not only because we’ve been researching for a while know but also we realized that we are actually designing a useable interface for blockchain

Methods We Used For Design

  • Parallel Design
  • Rapid Prototyping
  • Usability Testing
  • Think-aloud Protocal

In the design phase, as we were iterating the design for our final application. We went through multiple  rounds rounds of user testing with real researchers and students with experience participating in human subject research. 

Testing our prototype with researchers

We started with wireframes on a piece of paper, later into a clickable prototype on inVision and finally into a real interactive prototype. Through each round of prototype we were able to discover what the users like about our design and what they didn’t like or felt confused about and we would improve it in the next round.

After graduation, I am still iterating on the interface for cBase. Hoping to give it a more polished final look.


We designed a system based on the capabilities of blockchain and cryptocurrency and addressed how the cryptocurrency in this system can be earned, spent and circulated.

A decentralized blockchain database: Owing Your Data

The main part of our solution is the blockchain database and the applications around it. With this system all CMU students’ data will be stored in a blockchain database and only the students will have full access to all their data(private key). When other departments need their data they will need the permission from the students. These permissions are given through programmable smart-contracts, which gives students more control over how their data is used.

Applications on the blockchain database: Secure Money For Secure Data

Now that students can control how their data is being used, we provide them a chance to earn money with their data. They can do this through the different applications built for the blockchain database.

For this project we designed an application for our blockchain called cBase. It is a system that helps researchers on campus to recruit participants for human subject research. The system matches students from the data base anonymously to the resaerchers' recruiting  criteria, and if the students agree to participate in the research they will get paid in our cryptocurrency: Crypta.

cBase helps researchers find suitable participants on campus faster, helps them follow IRB guidelines on human subject protection and makes paying participants easier.

Use the button below to see our a clickthrough prototype of cBase.

cBase Prototype

The AAF: A New Way To Contribute To The Community

Crypta is the cryptocurrency we designed for CMU. Through research we realized that it is not possible to just start a cryptocurrency and expect users will believe it has value. To make people believe it holds value, we have to imbue it with things that people think are valuable. So we are backing our Crypta with dollars from a fund that we propose, the Academic Aid Fund (AAF). Students can cashout their Crypta for dollars from the AAF.

Take cBAse, the research participant recruiting platform, as an example. The AAF fund that can be exchanged from cBase Crypta is made up of 2 parts: participation compensation funds the researcher brought in and donations. When students cashout, besides the research fund baseline the students will also get a portion of the donation funds. The exchange rate fluctuates if the amount of Crypta in the market or available donations changes. We hope that this feature can encourage students to participate in on campus research and more donors to contribute to the school.

By creating the AAF fund, we want to explore the concept of programmable money. Digital money allows us to ensure that our cryptocurrency Crypta stays above the baseline value of 1 Crypta to $1 and makes transactions trackable. The IRB can now know if the researcher has paid that participants as promised with just a boolean inquire and donors can know how many students have benefited from their donation.

What does this design inform us about implementing blockchain solutions in the real world?

Blockchain and cryptocurrency have both been hot topics for many years. The bitcoin market rises and falls but there hasn’t been many well known applications of blockchain that can be actually used in everyday life. The goal of this project is to use CMU as a test bed and design a system that is scalable to be applied as a larger system. And after working on this problem for a couple of months, here are some trends that we see.

01 A Decentralized Web

We imagine a future where all personal data is stored on a decentralized network. Instead of allowing tech companies store and sell their personal data, users will be able to have full control over who gets to see or use their data and how their data is released.

Take picking a show to watch on Netflix as an example. Your TV show preferences and viewing history will be stored on your own database, Netflix will only be able to see it when you ask them for recommendations. They would only charge you when you are using their service. If Netflix wants to collect user data to optimize their recommendation algorithm, they can request data from their users, but Netflix will have to compensate the users for using their data.

The EU has started to regulate the usage of personal information by rolling out the Genearl Data Protection Regulation (the GDPR 2018), California has also passed their own GDPR, the Califonia Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA). These laws allow users to have full access of the data companies have about them. You can now download all the data Facebook has about you, from search history to like history, and completely delete yourself from their database, but as long as Facebook has your data they can still control how it is used. We hope a decentralized web can actually put the power in the users hands.

02 Programmable Money & Smart-Contracts

With transaction protocols powered by smart-contracts and a ubiquitous cryptocurrency applications can be built around the decentralized blockchain databases. Users will control the usage of their data through these applications.

But from user research we realized that terms like “Blockchain” and “Smart-Contracts” confuses the every-day users. So when we were designing cBase, our goal was to make a user-friendly interface for the blockchain database and smart-contracts so users get the benefit of these new technologies in an intuitive way. The logic and user journey of this design can be used in other blockchain database applications in the future.

03 What does Blockchain mean for banks?

PNC’s fintech company NUMO is also a stakeholder in this project, so we started to wonder what changes would blockchain and cryptocurrency bring to banks.

When cryptocurrency was first introduced one of its key features is that it is decentralized. This does not soudn like good news for bank, because transactions will not need to go through them anymore. But there might also be new opportunities. Not that people have realized the value of their own they data, the banks can act as a trusted authority to help users setup their own data bases and help them manage the smart-contracts they set up.