Let’s save the Pickle from wilting

This article discusses the current trajectory of the Pickle project, after its announced collaboration with Yearn, and my encouragement to preserve Pickle as a product, to the extent possible.

Marc Andreessen famously said, “Software is eating the world”, and the past decade has demonstrated that to be true. Much of our daily interactions today are with software products, and what the past decade has also shown us is that great design and user experience sits at the core of almost all products that win in most spaces, and particularly the consumer space.

Decentralized finance is the world of financial products being built, primarily on the Ethereum network, including permissionless equivalents to borrowing, lending, trading, futures, options, banking and savings accounts. In my opinion, it has great potential to disrupt finance as we know it today.

Today’s participants in DeFi are unsurprisingly early adopter technologists. They’re comfortable in taking risks, and navigating complicated interfaces in search of outsized returns. DeFi will realize its true potential, however, in the next three to five years, when today’s early adopters represent 1%, while the other 99% will be people like my mom, neighbor, and local dentist.

If history is any guide, the products those DeFi users will interact with will look and work like traditional finance (TradFi) products like Wealthfront and Fundrise. Products like Fundrise feel coherent in their branding, narrative, design, and vocabulary of product-specify terminology used in interacting with them.

Curve Finance

Leading DeFi products at that time will almost certainly not look or work anything like today’s DeFi juggernaut Curve Finance.

Curve is the industry’s largest provider of stablecoin liquidity pools for trading, and incentivizes liquidity provision by rewarding LPs with CRV tokens. They also introduced a structure to incentive the removing of CRV tokens from circulation by providing boosted LP rewards in return for locking CRV tokens for various durations of time, using a UI featured called a “Locker”, and then staking one’s LP tokens in a UI feature called a “Gauge”.

The relative amount of CRV rewards assigned to each Gauge, referred to as “Gauge Weights”, is determined through Curve governance voting. Who gets to vote? “veCRV” holders. What’s a “veCRV”? It’s the receipt you’re given when you deposit CRV in the Locker!

The Curve project has no product designers, and this is reflected in its product. Interacting with Curve is possibly the worst user experience in all of DeFi.

Pools, Gauges, Lockers, Minters, Gauge Weights do not form the vocabulary of a product that will be understandable by the 99% of DeFi users that will be here in a few years’ time. Given these terms, along with a confusing user interface (and I’m talking about how it works, not the retro aesthetics), it’s not uncommon that the first reaction of even today’s early adopters arriving at Curve for the first time is, “Do I need a Ph.D. to figure out how this all works?”

Say hello to Pickle Finance

Pickle was conceived as a yield aggregator, which you could think of as a crypto savings account, i.e. a place where you could deposit crypto assets into “Pickle Jars”, to earn a yield.

Furthermore, you could then deposit your Pickle Jar “receipts”, i.e. “pTokens”, into “Pickle Farms”, to “farm” newly minted PICKLE tokens, which you could “harvest” anytime you like. A person depositing Bitcoin at Pickle, currently earns almost 20% between Jar and Farm rewards!

This consistent visual and interactive vocabulary like “jars”, “farms” and “harvesting”, along with the names of its anonymous developers, like “Larry the Cucumber” and “BigBrainBriner”, formed the narrative of a coherent, understandable and endearing consumer product.

Since the three-person Pickle team didn’t have any product designers, I decided to join its community, hoping to contribute my skillset as a product designer and manager, and help Pickle become a delightful consumer product for those DeFi users arriving in the next few years. I could easily see someone like my mom or neighbor warming up to the idea of earning interest at the cute and engaging Pickle Finance. My first contribution was the explainer microsite pickle.fyi.

Things were going well, but then in November 2020, the Pickle project suffered a devastating hack, as someone exploited bugs in one of the Pickle Jars, and stole $20M. The Pickle price plunged, funds left the platform, and the Pickle team were faced with the daunting task of rebuilding trust and a viable business.

Yearn to the rescue?

Yearn Finance, lead by the iconic developer Andre Cronje, was the first yield aggregator in the DeFi space. In response to the Pickle hack, Andre suggested that, rather than trying to rebuild, that Pickle enter into a collaboration with Yearn.

As part of that collaboration, Andre suggested that Pickle no longer develop its own yield strategies, i.e. Pickle Jars, and instead allow the receipts of Yearn strategies, known as “Vaults”, to be deposited into Pickle Farms, to earn PICKLEs. Since Pickle has emissions, while Yearn doesn’t, this would allow Yearn to offer its customers increase yield through farming.

Additionally, Andre proposed that Pickle adopt the boosting concept invented by Curve, allowing PICKLE tokens to be locked for a period of time, thereby providing a boost to the amount of PICKLEs earned by customers of Pickle Farms.

In this way, Pickle would give up its core product—i.e. yield strategies—and be left only with its value-add, i.e. the Pickle Farms that reward PICKLE emissions to depositors.

In my view, the collaboration with Yearn carries the risk of turning Pickle into a “feature”, rather than a product. The only thing PICKLE will “do” in the future is allocate its own emissions to customers of Yearn, extract fees from those customers to pay those who lock PICKLE tokens in the boosting scheme, and allowing those lockers to vote on how much PICKLE are assigned to the various classes of Yearn customers.

There will no longer be a core Pickle service, supported by a token. Unlike Uniswap and Curve, Pickle doesn’t provide AMMs, supported by a token. And unlike its former self, it doesn’t provide yield earning strategies, supported by a token.

Pickle is now simply a token, whose value is derived by extracting fees from people who want to deposit other tokens to farm the Pickle token itself. Maybe it will work, but it seems kind of shallow and fragile as a concept, regardless of the attraction of being associated with Yearn, that has $500M in customer deposits.

Can Pickle as a product be saved?

I believe Pickle’s best strategy would be to strive to remain, as far as possible, an independent and coherent product, isolating its relationship with Yearn in the experience of that product as best as possible, to prepare for potential eventualities such as the Yearn collaboration coming to an end, or Pickle wishing to expand by supporting yield strategies beyond those from Yearn.

Andre Cronje is a technologist, not a product or user experience designer. In his announcement of the collaboration with Pickle, perhaps without much consideration,  he directly borrowed terminology from Curve in his description of how Pickle would work in the future. For example, instead of Pickle “Farms”, he used the term “Pickle Guages”.

By adopting Curve terminology, Pickle effectively kills its own identity as a recognizable, comprehensible and cohesive product. Imagine a future narrative like:

Welcome newcomer! This is Pickle! Here you can stake your Yearn yTokens into Pickle Gauges, to earn PICKLE tokens which you can claim at any time. You can also lock your PICKLE tokens using the Pickle Locker, to boost your Gauge earnings and have the right to occasionally vote on Gauge Weights. We’ve also got a Backscratcher that makes everything better.

The only people who might understand what any of that means, would be existing Curve users, who have already gone through the painful process of figuring out how Curve works. Almost certainly, the 99% of DeFi users that will arrive in the next few years will not be familiar with Curve’s product model, and will find this narrative confusing.

I urged to the Pickle team to work to continue as an independent, cohesive product.

  • Rather than “Gauges”, the term “Farm” could continue as the place where Yearn customers deposit their yTokens in order to “farm” PICKLE tokens.
  • Fees extracted from these “farmers” could be termed something like “cultivation fees”.
  • The plural Pickle Jars could then be re-purposed into the singular “Pickel Jar”, which implements the Curve locking mechanism. Where better to “store” your PICKLEs than “the Pickle Jar”?

Compare the previous narrative to:

Welcome newcomer! This is Pickle! Here you can deposit your Yearn yTokens into Pickle Farms, to farm PICKLE tokens which you can harvest at any time. You’ll pay a small cultivation fee, but it’ll be worth it! You can also store your PICKLE tokens in the Pickle Jar, to boost your Farm yields and have the right to occasionally vote on those cultivation fees.

This narrative can stand on its own. It preserves Pickle as a product in an of itself, and one that is ready to adapt to changes in the partnership landscape that may evolve in the future.

However, my suggestions fell on deaf ears. From founder Larry, having considered my arguments:

Update guys, we’re going to stick to the conventions set out by Curve (i.e. gauge, locker, etc.) As unintuitive as they may be, we’re part of the Yearn ecosystem now, which Curve is also largely a part of. So it’s important that users moving between the different parts of the system immediately know what they’re getting.

What’s next?

This all hits like a punch in the stomach to me personally, as I realize I’ve potentially invested time and effort on the wrong horse. I seem unable to muster optimism about the project’s future on its current trajectory—as all I can see developing, from the perspective of tomorrow’s masses, is a confusing extended “feature” of Yearn.

I’ll continue participating in the community for the time being, as I’ve developed some friendships there, including with the Pickle founders themselves. And my hope for Pickle is that my pessimism will be proven misplaced. But I’ll also be also on the lookout for emerging projects that share my view of the importance of product design and user experience as core to their long-term success.

Finally, if you’re reading this, and agree with my perspective, be sure to hop into the project Discord, and let your voice be heard! One thing the Pickle founders have demonstrated during the whole of the project, is a deep respect for the opinions of the community as a whole.

Recommendation — Continue evolving Pickle as an independent product, including all that implies, particularly from a product design, branding and user experience standpoint, even if for the moment, it operates as a collaborative member of the Yearn ecosystem.