Bringing the Offline Online: Reviewing the Developer Experience of Awala

  • Awala is a new computer network where compatible apps can use the internet when it’s available, and can switch to a secure offline network when it’s not. 
  • As part of the OTF Usability Lab, we conducted a UX assessment of Awala apps used by end users and couriers, reviewed the app developer experience and provided UX/UI recommendations to better support developers building apps on Awala.
  • Here, we dig into our developer experience review of Awala - which centered around trustworthy experiences, documentation, and suitable use cases. 

Internet blackouts are disconcertingly common around the world. Whether due to government censorship, poverty, or geographic limitations, billions of people around the globe do not have reliable access to the internet. As the modern economy and global communication channels exist more and more online, there is a growing divide among those with and without access to high-quality, stable internet. And in cases of government censorship, many cannot share their lived experiences with the broader world. But more infrastructure and better politics won’t solve the challenges alone.

Awala is a new computer network where compatible apps can use the internet when it’s available, and can switch to a secure offline network when it’s not. This network bridges the world wide web with regions where internet access is highly unreliable or unavailable altogether. Through the OTF Usability Lab, Awala reached out to Simply Secure to review their user interface for developers and find ways to improve support for developers who are looking to build apps for Awala. 

Currently, as Awala is a new protocol, there are no public-facing apps that are compatible. Good news though - Awala recently started another contract from OTF. This new contract will support third-party app developers and users to onboard Awala - as well as to support the development of Letro, a new encrypted messaging app meant to work offline thanks to Awala.

Below, we share a bit about our methodology and recommendations.

What is Awala and how does it Work?

Gus Narea, founder and CEO of Relaycorp, created Awala (formerly Relaynet) to circumvent censorship by repressive governments. The vision of Awala is to “complement the Internet by providing all human beings with uncensored and timely communication anywhere in the universe – without impairing the fundamental rights of other human beings.” 

When the internet is available, Awala-compatible apps connect like usual to send and receive information. When the internet isn’t available, these apps can send information to ‘couriers’ to give offline users the ability to communicate with a delay. Couriers are able to receive encrypted information, and transfer (relay) the information once they are connected to the internet. 

Awala is designed in such a way that anyone can be a courier — all they need is the courier app and the ability to move from A to B to relay data. The threat model assumes that repressive regimes will manage to compromise or pass off as couriers. The data transported by couriers is end-to-end encrypted, and the routing metadata is obfuscated so that they can’t link it to an individual user or service (e.g., Twitter). 

Awala is also capable of detecting when data are lost in transit, and trigger subsequent delivery attempts until the data are eventually acknowledged by the final destination. That means that in the worst case scenario, a malicious courier will only manage to drop the data they collect for/from users. See this helpful video for a more in-depth explanation of the courier relay process.

Methodology 

We reviewed the developer experience of the Awala app to provide useful DX recommendations for developers looking to build Awala-compatible apps. Reviews of this type are very important when new protocols are looking to lower the barrier to adoption.

First, we completed a heuristic review of the Awala Desktop and Mobile applications by utilizing the 10 Heuristics for Responsible Interface Design with a focus on courier synchronization and configuration of the relay. The UX assessment made recommendations around error prevention, diagnosis, and recovery; efficiency and just-in-time information; and wayfinding and visibility - all key heuristics for enhancing usability with a focus on user privacy. 

 Since recruiting third-party app developers is a priority, we also performed an expert review to better understand why and how to build applications using the Awala protocol, and to recommend changes to improve developer usability of the app. Below we dig deeper into the developer experience review. We asked three core questions in our developer experience review, centering trust, documentation, and suitability. 

Findings & Recommendations

Trust: How can Awala help developers create a trustworthy experience? 

  • Trust is about people first, tech second: Providing context for the user is important. Users must understand both that they need to download Awala and that it needs to be offline.
  • Couriers are drivers of adoption: Couriers are the main drivers of adoption and growth of Awala. Couriers will help users both onboard to Awala, and trust the Awala brand.

Key Recommendations: Focus on couriers as the growth center – make it easy for couriers to deploy  Awala-compatible applications. Think about how Awala can incentivize couriers, and how to increase visibility of the number of couriers active on the network, including location and frequency.

Documentation: How can Awala enable and clarify customization options? 

  • Documentation requires a mental model: Developers need to understand how Awala works on a basic level. For example, how can a developer take their existing simple HTTP server and turn it into an Awala app? 
  • Limiting new concepts: Reduce and simplify the number of new terms and concepts that are needed for developers to get started using Awala. 

Key Recommendation:  Improve documentation for developers and keep things simple. Provide step-by-step instructions, especially with guidance on how developers can integrate Awala into an existing application.        

Suitability: What class of applications are good use cases for Awala? 

  • Hybrid Applications: Focusing the business model only on communities with access to the censored internet might limit Awala’s potential reach and user base. Consider some applications (such as video-based apps) that are challenging to use with slow internet. What are some hybrid applications, where Awala can be used for parts of the application that don’t work well with a poor internet connection?
  • Village or City: Consider the types of interactions e among users of the app. Think of the village or city mode, where in a village people connect via close connections (texting, invite-only chat), and in the city where people are surrounded by strangers (posts are more likely to be public and anonymous by default). 

Key Recommendations: Consider growing Awala’s target user base to include those with bad or slow internet, not just those who experience internet blackouts. Provide different use cases to developers so they can imagine apps to be used in different scenarios. Encourage developers to think about the types of interactions their users might have.

Conclusion

Awala is at an exciting stage of growth. At a time when billions of investment dollars are being poured into infrastructure solutions, Gus and the team are thinking about the gaps between the infrastructure, and the people who live in those spaces. Technologies like Awala bridge digital divides and provide opportunities for people to connect safely, even when traditional infrastructure and politics might block their access. And the team is looking to get more people involved in building the protocol.

We look forward to seeing how Awala continues to grow its developer and user communities, and follow the development of Letro. 

Credits

Project Contributors: Gus Narea, Rae McKelvey 

With support from OTF Usability Lab.

Related

Open source & branding – a contradiction?

Simply Secure's take on branding in open source, with a case study on Tails.

Using Design to Overcome Structural Inequities in Peer Review

We take a deeper look at three specific design challenges our team addressed in helping PREreview build a new open source platform that supports a more inclusive, community-oriented form of peer review and publication.

Iconography of Security

The paradox of security visual language.