Can Craigslist UX be improved?

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At first glance, the visual design of Craigslist looks to be stuck in the 1990s.  It does not have the normal graphical flair or even follow principles stemming from visual hierarchy, information architecture, or color theory.  And yet it seems to be doing pretty well for itself, making approximately $380 million in 2015.

Craigslist first took off in the late 90s and early 2000s when it became a household name for classified ads perhaps using that domain for many of its design decisions. Yet its look has remained largely unchanged for the last 15 years or so and I was interested in exploring why.

I started by observing users actually use Craigslist and had them engage in a think-aloud protocol as they did two specific tasks. First, I wanted them to find a place they would like to live close to Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, PA and second, I wanted them to post an ad for a piece of furniture. I ended up recruiting five users (three women, two men), two of whom were first-time users of Craigslist.

My findings and observations grouped into six broad categories:

  1. Participants had different ways of switching between the Craigslist for different cities. Some searched on Google, some had to figure out how to spell the city name and type it into the URL bar, some used the navigation within the site itself.
  2. Participants found it difficult to coordinate a place that they could see in a specific location on the map and find that corresponding place in the subsequent list view.
  3. Participants wanted ways to save and compare ads.
  4. When selling, participants wished they could have some suggestions for how to post a title or how to word the content of an ad.
  5. When selling, participants noted a confusing posting path where they had to first choose the city in which to post and then the category even though they were already in the seller category already.
  6. When selling, participants wished that they could post images on the very same page as the ad itself.

Though these observations were interesting, I wanted to ask another kind of question:

What is the actual problem? What is the real issue facing Craigslist?

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My contention is a clear word: TRUST.

Here is a snippet of some of the actual quotes said by my five participants during my observation.

  • “Looks like a fake website.”
  • “Doesn’t seem safe.”
  • “I don’t want people to know where I live.”
  • “Feels dangerous.”
  • “Wow, all the ads look so bad and sketchy.”
  • “I don’t want to put my location.”

Next, I wanted to look at how other classified ad/e-commerce websites dealt with trust issues. I looked at, a similar classified ad website, as well as other major e-commerce sites like eBay, Alibaba, Amazon, and even Airbnb. I made several observations from these sites.

The presence of a user account with an accompanying picture does manage to enhance trust levels between two parties.  Airbnb does a good job by guiding you to take a picture of your face and also has the ability to add further verification documents to increase one’s trust. Furthermore, some sort of badge or rating system can let you know that you are dealing with trustworthy people versus someone who has consistently bad ratings.

I took these ideas to see if I could incorporate them in to Craigslist while keeping the visual design of the site the same.

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This was a fun exercise for me to engage in to see how I would reimagine Craigslist by making an important distinction between the visual design of a site and the actual user experience of a site. I argued that trust is the most important issue facing Craigslist and decided to make some improvements targeting that specific issue.

So, at the end of the day, is Craigslist UX likely to change?  No.  Can Craigslist UX be improved?  Maybe, but at this point, no. And that is not a bad thing.  Craigslist actually has a phenomenal UX; it’s just not what we normally come to think of as a great UX.  Craigslist allows its users to do what they want and get out. Its strength is that it doesn’t get in your way with too many bells and whistles and instead gives the user the ability to quickly perform his or her desired tasks to satisfaction.

Less is often more when designing great experiences.


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