The bane of every digital designer (visual, UX, UI) and information architect on the planet is without question Craigslist. This damn site is–and we can all agree on this–abysmal, but it is wildly successful. So when we tell our clients, that they can't have a complete lack of hierarchy or competing CTAs or... Gawd, the list goes on, the strength of our argument is weakened by the mere existence of this freakishly popular classified site.
I was recently at a UX conference and one of the seminar speakers was making a valid point about not forcing users to work too hard, when I raised my hand and uttered the disdained words, "What about Craigslist?" And the entire room groaned in empathetic frustration.
I wasn't trying to be antagonistic; I truly wanted to understand how this blight on the design community could thrive. Is there a fatal flaw in our industry's belief structure?
Why does it look the way it does at all?
In his Skookum tech talk, "Technical Aesthetics: Using the Lessons of the Bauhaus to Inform Modern Product Design," Joshua Miller makes an assertion I'd tend to agree with. We can blame the engineers. (hah!) No, but really, Craigslist was engineered to be as simple of code as possible. Stripped down to the barest essentials, so even troglodytes could enter data successfully. There's no worry that any user will unwittingly take down the entire site. It is built for the lowest common denominator.
I know that sounds harsh, but it's really not. This isn't the first product (service?) that has been engineered for the lowest common denominator. And it won't be the last.
So the first clue here is Craigslist's awareness of who their demographic is: the general population. A mass of people who do not need to understand the difference between HTML and CSS. They consist of a mix of native languages, literacy levels, resources.
But all of this is true of Facebook too, right? And yet, they spend millions, if not billions, of dollars on design and marketing. (Sidebar: There's an argument to be made here about the intent for world domination, but I'll leave that for another time.)
What is the origin story?
Wired News posted an article/podcast ten years ago about Craig Newmark's seeming ambivalence towards his company's mission and growth. How he started the original site as a way to keep abreast of his city's upcoming events. The main tenet he espouses is anti-commercialism. Though, I think he may be neglecting to mention a few other, fairly obvious sources of inspiration.
The most clear forefather to Craigslist is the good ol' Nickel Ads. In my hometown, they used to be printed on yellow paper–fancy! I realize this seems like an overly obvious correlation: paper classified ads begot digital classified site. But, I need to point out: the complete lack of hierarchy, white space, significant imagery. Generations of folks–my parents, grandparents and, I'm grateful to note, even great grandparents still alive today–grew up accustomed to mining this dredge for the things they needed.
I remember visiting the nickel ads desk with my great grandmother to advertise our upcoming yard sale. I can clearly picture the funny little form she had to fill out, with the character limits and all the silly abbreviations. This was normal.
So there are at least three generations of folks out there that would be comfortable with a digital version of this mess. It would be the expectation, when searching for classifieds.
The second source of inspiration may seem less apparent, but indulge me for a moment.
You've been here before: The clearance table or rack of some popular store. Toasters piled on top of fax machines, hiding hooded sweatshirts. It's a mess. It's a safari! There is a significant subset of the population that sprints to these sales. They love the hunt for the diamond in the rough.
And in so many ways, searching Craigslist is the same victory seeking game. I have many friends who brag about plumbing Craigslist for hours to find the perfect piece of furniture for their DIY project. The rational part of my brain is wondering what the value of their time is, and how much that would ratchet up the perceived cost of their new bureau. But I can appreciate the sense of victory, nonetheless. The thrill of the hunt is intoxicating. And the perception of victory over modern capitalism is empowering. Those are two very strong sentiments that most companies would kill to evoke.
So what does this mean?
Does this mean that you need to turn your site into a wasteland of text links and gibberish, so your users can find a sense of adventure and victory? No. Gawd, no. You have to take all of the clues together to find the truer explanation. Craigslist is a fool-proof, rudimentary product that is non-threatening to the general population and unlikely to have any major technical failures. It takes advantage of the 50+ age range of folks who expect their classified experience to be exactly as it is. And the inherent mess, combined with elemental controls entices the everyday deal-seeker.
Again, all of this points to who they are aiming for and what their business goal is. Most companies are not targeting the mass population. Even large conglomerations like Lowe's or William-Sonoma are not trying to attract the attention of every adult human being on the planet. And the mega-overlord companies like Facebook and Google–who do want the attention of every human–want more than just their attention. They want their information and their loyalty. Their business goals include wanting a small piece of your soul. (Sidenote: hyperbole. Please don't sue me.)
Making it tangible.
Who is your user? What is their demographic? Let me give you three over-simplified examples:
Charlotte is a middle-aged, stay-at-home mom, who in her few, brief moments to herself wants to veg out searching Joss & Main for the piece of decor she didn't know she had to have. She has an MBA and day dreams about starting her own interior decorating company once her littles are in school.
Austin is a 20-something, upstart at his company. He's very tech-savvy, priding himself on always being cutting-edge, but has no brand loyalty at all. He wants what works best and doesn't care about tradition or marketing. You'll find him perusing (the Craigslist-like) Reddit for his news.
Alexandria is a c-suite executive assistant. Her boss is unfairly demanding and she has developed a knack for performing miracles. She does not have time to dally, and needs clear results fast. She spends more time than she likes on the American Express website.
Are you a business-to-business (B2B) company? Then you might be selling to Alexandria's boss, which means, you're really selling to Alexandria. She doesn't have time to play games. Give her the relevant facts and make them compelling. If she has to dig more than two layers to get your info, you've wasted her time and impeded on her efficiency.
Are you a start-up looking for new beta testers or an alternative solution provider looking for folks who want something that's just better? Then you're probably targeting Austin. And he wants to see results. He doesn't care how pretty or happy the models on your website are. He wants to see the proof of why you're better. He'll mine for it, if he needs to, but the only way he's gonna start digging is if you have a compelling reason for him to visit, which probably means an undertow of social enthusiasm.
Are you an e-commerce site? Then Charlotte's probably your gal. She's clever and enjoys therapy-shopping, but she has very limited time to get out to her favorite brick and mortars. Charlotte will tolerate your infinitely scrolling inventory list. She will dig and hunt for a good buy. However, she wants to enjoy the process. She wants it to be easy; eye-candy even. Because her faculties have been eroded by screaming children. She desires a mental vacation.
In all three of these cases, you could take tips from Craigslist. You could also improve on what they are doing, so the results are tailored to your users and your business goals.
Whether Craig Newmark wants to hear it or not, his $400 million dollar company could be a billions-dollar company if he embraced a little A/B testing. Design improvements don't have to hinder your site's functionality. Nor do they have to become threatening to the tech-shy. Quite the opposite, they can improve usability all around.
So, yes, Craigslist is a success story. But I dare say, it could rival Amazon if was willing to be a little less anti-commercial. Even Jeff Bezos can be virtuous at times.
Thanks and happy creating!