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Designing the Obvious Clinic: CraigsList

Last updated Oct 17, 2003.

By Robert Hoekman, Jr.

About Designing the Obvious Clinics

The goal of each Designing the Obvious clinic is to see how a particular web application measures up to the principles discussed in my book, Designing the Obvious: A Common Sense Approach to Web Application Design. To learn more about Designing the Obvious, visit my Web site.

Doing It All With CraigsList

CraigsList, started by now-legendary Craig Newmark as a bulletin board for San Francisco residents, has barely changed over the years, but almost anyone who's used it can tell you how valuable it is. Finding something to buy is as simple as a few clicks, and listing something for sale is just as easy. Need a date for a cocktail party? Find one on CraigsList. Need a job? Find your next big career move in the same place.

But this is not an application run by hungry marketers eager to cram in features to accommodate a variety of different needs and audiences. Nor is this the site maintained by a team that immediately implements every feature idea a user throws out. No, no, no.

This is an application that’s so stripped down it almost looks like someone forgot to design it. But design it they did. How else does a site that sells everything from bikes to software, and coordinates everything from yoga classes to dates, for every state in the Union and a few dozen other countries, manage to keep itself so easy to use?

Figure 1

Figure 1 The un-design of CraigsList hides the site’s brilliance.

My theory is that they did just what I advocate in my book: ignore the demands of specific audiences and make the product work for anyone by focusing on the activity instead of the user.

Supporting The Activity

If you’re poking around CraigsList, you’re most likely either posting items for sale or browsing though the assortment of ads that is already there. Naturally, CraigsList supports these activities by including ways to browse listings and post new ones, and in doing so, CraigsList appears to intentionally avoid catering to any particular audience.

In fact, CraigsList avoids anything that might even appeal to a specific audience. No graphic design work, no new-fangled rounded corners, no fancy logos, nothing. Just straight, plain Jane HTML, minimally dispersed through page after page of design-less content.

The site also avoids features that cater to specific audiences. Instead of offering a set of tools for more experienced or experimental users to edit images when posting a new item, CraigsList leaves it up to users to handle image editing on their own. Instead of step-through wizard processes for newer users, complete with instructive elements and tutorials, the site offers exactly one way to complete each task on the site, and clear, obvious links that take users through each one.

CraigsList could have decided to make a site for geeks, chock full of modular widgets to post on their own web sites, or for small businesses, complete with management tools for ad campaigns and inventory tracking. Instead, the developers focused on straightforward task flows and simple interactions. As a result, the whole site is useful for everyone, and usable by anyone.

A little graphic design, though, couldn't hurt CraigsList users. Minimalism clearly works to the site's advantage, but even minimalists like things that look good. In fact, renowned usability expert Donald Norman suggests that things that look better also work better. Users assume that a site with a polished appearance was designed with care and will perform better as a result. With that in mind, a little formatting for the page templates used by CraigsList could go a long way.

Overall, CraigsList’s success doesn’t stem from quality visual design or anything else that is generally considered good practice on the web (except that each page loads extremely quickly). It's that the whole site "just works." Users don’t spend a lot of time figuring things out, orienting themselves to the environment, or deciding if they like the color palette. Users spend most of their time on the site browsing through tons of interesting content, written in the very human voices of the site's users, finding the things they need. There's nothing corporate about the site, and CraigsList never makes you jump through any hoops to find what you need. The site’s approachable, friendly tone makes it feel like home to a lot of people, and those people keep coming back.

People also love CraigsList because it's designed to support a few core tasks and each one is kept so simple that the site is consistently helpful and useful in spite of its appearance.

Finally, CraigsList leaves users wide open to market their items any way they want. When listing a car for sale on other sites, for example, users are forced to choose the make and model, year, color, body style, and many other things, and they are left with just a couple of lines for a personal summary of the vehicle. With CraigsList, all you get is a big text field in which you can enter anything you want, in your own words, in your own voice. This freedom makes the site flexible enough for its users to get creative and decide for themselves how to market their items.

Supporting the User's Mental Model

The mental model this application aims to support is clearly a real-world bulletin board, like those found in college campuses and in grocery stores. Since almost everyone has some experience with these types of interactions, the model is easily translated to the web. The bulletin board concept is incredibly simple, and keeping it simple has been the key to success. CraigsList has said "No" to anything that would complicate the process of listing or finding content on the site.

Figure 2

Figure 2 This form isn't pretty, but it gets the job done with little effort, and leaves users open to market their items any way they want.

To post a new item for sale to CraigsList, simply choose a category and fill out a short form. Enter whatever you want to describe the item, add a few photos, and call it a day. To find a new car or apartment for rent, just click the appropriate category on the homepage and start browsing listings. Practically everything on the site is a link to more information, guiding users through short paths to complete bulletin board listings. It's not quite the at-a-glance view enabled by real-world bulletin boards full of note cards, but you can quickly scan listing titles to decide what you'd like to see, and it generally only takes a couple of clicks to get almost anywhere on the site.

This condensed, streamlined workflow gets users to the information they want quickly and effectively. The mental model of a bulletin board is a little different than the online experience of drilling down through a huge amount of content, but the difference is minimal, kept so by an apparent rule that no page is more than a few clicks away.

Designing for Uniformity

Uniformity is where CraigsList starts running into issues. Almost nothing on the site looks like anything else. The overall lack of formatting and design for the site leave each section with its own appearance, each wildly different than the last. The only thing that persists throughout the site, in fact, is the lack of formatting. Each section maintains the stripped down, barebones appearance of un-styled HTML.

Figure 3

Figure 3 Plain black text on a plain white background, horizontal divider lines, and a completely un-styled, liquid page that looks different than every other section on the site. Somehow, it works.

But contrary to everything I said about uniformity in the book, some sites seem to work just fine despite ignoring this aspect of good design. CraigsList is definitely one of them. Even without any sense of consistency in design or uniformity of any kind, millions of users manage to work their way through the site and get things done.

So why is CraigsList such a hit? Why don't people complain about the un-design of the site? Some would theorize, in direct conflict with Donald Norman's theory that improved appearances mean improved experiences, that ugly sites work well because users are less intimidated by them. The assumption is that if the user feels like she could have designed the site herself, she'll be more willing to trust the site, because the people who put it together are just like her.

Of course, most usability specialists will tell you that this is a crock. It's been proven time and time again that well-designed experiences are considered more enjoyable, and keep users feeling productive and smart.

The real reason CraigsList does so well is that one aspect of the site is kept extremely uniform: each and every task a user can perform on the site takes just a few clicks. And this keeps users moving forward at all times. In other words, no one really stops to care about the visual quality of the site because they're too busy getting things done. And in the end, this is all that matters for the CraigsList community.

Wrapping Up

CraigsList isn’t a site you'd visit for its appealing appearance, but it is one of the most useful sites on the web, whether you're selling a coffeemaker or looking for a job in a new state. And despite its lack of design, the site is just ... fun. It's fun to use, fun to browse, and fun to talk about (just mention it sometime to a few co-workers and see how many people love it). Its simple concept makes it immediately understandable, and its simple task flows keep users moving forward.