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Case in Point: eBay

To demonstrate the conflict in approaches more adequately, I will examine some of the punditry-versus-people issues that occur on eBay. I had the good fortune to learn a lot about the way eBay's usability and design teams approach problems while working on a book last year, and the experience gave me the cornerstone ideas for this article.

eBay is a profound example of usability needs insofar as the people approach. Although many of us enjoy eBay as a place to go find great deals and interesting goods, the reality is that eBay has become a job for many people. Millions of individuals rely on eBay as the primary means of running their businesses and wouldn't have the same opportunities and traffic without eBay. Other unique issues that affect eBay include the following:

  • It has an enormous visitor and user base.

  • It has a highly diverse visitor and user base in terms of general demographics.

  • It has a highly diverse user base in terms of technical skills.

  • It is an enormous site—one of the largest on the Web—and is growing daily.

  • It has been around long enough to have significant legacy concerns.

The individuals working on the eBay Web site are very sensitive to the issues confronting them. Any conceptual improvement or change to the site's interface can in fact cause significant people problems. In fact, Tom Walter, who has led multiple redesigns of eBay, sums it up. "If you want to make art, go paint a picture," he says. "At eBay, we're designing software—software that people use daily for their livelihood. That's a huge responsibility."

So what happens when John Q., who has very little computer skills or interest other than offering his handmade cabinetry to a wide audience via eBay, suddenly finds that the navigation he's used for the last four years has completely changed? Chances are that he won't say "Hey, cool!" Chances are that he'll feel frustrated that he has to now learn a different means of getting from point A to point B, causing him extra time that interferes with his ability to do what he came to eBay to do: sell his stuff.

In their book Homepage Usability: 50 Websites Deconstructed, Jakob Nielsen and Marie Tahir walk through a number of Web sites and provide concept-based criticism about what was good or not about the given site's usability. From a punditry perspective, their criticisms make broad-stroke sense. In regards to eBay's design, one of the main concerns expressed by Nielsen and Tahir is the complexity and type of options for navigation. And although Nielsen and Tahir aren't wrong from a broad perspective, they didn't dig deeper into the people issue involved.

But I did. And what I found was that there was significant concern within eBay to avoid taking away navigation options and styles because of the very situation I described for our fictitious John Q. From eBay's perspective, any change made to the site must come about through a genuine need. This is clearly an audience-driven approach, not a concept-driven one.

The eBay designers have dug deep into their audience and realize that their user community wants change to go slowly, with new introductions to the interface being made with care. Sometimes, it means adding a new feature without removing an old one. Yes, it results in clutter, which Nielsen and Tahir rightly express concerns about. However, the audience is driving, and if the clutter is less important than having the options, and if we are working under the idea that the goal of usability is to get the audience to what they want, the audience-driven perspective must reign in this case.

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