user experience · web 2.0

design is a good idea (on ugliness, with some thoughts on the DesignGuys Craiglist ‘realignment’)

There’s been a whole lot of talk lately about ‘ugly design’ and the perception that ‘it works’. The often quoted examples are My Space, eBay, Craigs List, and As someone who spends too much time thinking about design and trying to apply user centred design principles to the projects I work on, I find this somewhat annoying.

First up, let’s define what we mean by design. There are really two different aspects to ‘design’ that people are referring to – there’s the design that I’m most interested in which is the information and interface design. Then there’s the design that is most often talked about, that’s the visual design. Both of these types of designs are important when it comes to thinking about this idea of ‘ugly design’ and why, sometimes, it appears to work.

Information/Interaction Design: no one likes bad information design. Bad information design means you can’t find the information you’re looking for because its badly placed, or doesn’t exist at all, or the ‘flags’ (or scent) you need to help you find the information are hard to find or non existent. When you come to a site like this, you leave. And you don’t come back, unless you absolutely have to. The internet is abundent with information and making information that people are looking for easy for them is an essential part of making your site somewhere they’ll visit and return to, and recommend to their social network. Good information design (which includes information architecture) is entry level to having ‘a site that works’.

Interaction design, when poorly executed, is also a source of frustration for users, and a good reason for them to seek out an alternative to your site. Interaction design is poorly executed when it doesn’t allow users to perform the tasks that they wish to perform on your site with thel least amount of effort. Taking the time to identify these tasks and to ensure that they are implemented efficiently means that your site becomes ‘easy to use’, which is compelling reason to choose your site over other alternatives.

Interestingly, in talking about these critical design forms, I’ve managed to not really talk about what your site ‘looks like’ at all. There is a common misconception that ‘design’ refers to ‘the look’ of things… and in some ways, it does. Its taken me a while to embrace the idea that I am a designer, even though my sense of colour co-ordination is not the best, and my photoshop skills are fairly average. I’m not a visual designer (aka graphic designer).

Visual design, of course, is also a very important part of the user experience of a website. Good visual design can take strong information design and make it even more effective. Good visual design makes strong interaction design not only efficient, but also elegant. And, of course, visual design is critical to the brand messages that a website sends.

So, when people are talking about My Space, eBay, Craigs List, and having ‘ugly design’, what kind of design are they referring to?

Well, in all of these cases, I think there are opportunities for the IA and ID to be strengthened, but, by and large, they enable people to easily locate the content/functionality they seek, and to perform the key tasks reasonably efficiently. It’s in the visual design realm that they really stink.

There’s a reasonably widely propogated idea that in order for a website to be ‘trusted’ it needs to be visually ‘well designed’, or to be seen to have good quality visual design. Well, obviously these enormously popular and well trusted sites fly in the face of that concept.

In my view, there’s a good reason for that, though. And it doesn’t mean that we can now take graphic design out of our production schedules because its unneccessary. Sometimes, a less ‘polished’ visual design is *part* of the brand. For sites like Craigs List and eBay, a big part of their appeal is the promise that they will deliver a good deal. They trade in discount, ‘cheapness’ is part of their brand. Having a lusciously and obviously expensively designed interface counteracts that claim, crearing cognative disconnect between the intent of the site and it’s presentation. This is what creates distrust.

Design Eye for the List Guy

So, in light of all this discussion, how timely was it that the Design Eye Guys decided to apply their skill to Craigs List (as recently presented at SXSW).

People have bagged the design (or apparent lack thereof) on CraigList for as long as its been in existence. Yet, people still use it and (as the design guys said) love it. It works.

Part of the foundation of the Design Guys redesign (or, to use their term ‘realignment’ was a research finding that showed that people wanted a more professional look to the site. They found that although people found the site very easy to use and read, they didn’t think it was ‘trustworthy’ or ‘professional’.

Hrm… I know it’s kind of naughty to say this but… how much can you trust a user?

I’m reminded of that supposed quote of Henry Ford when apparently he said that if he asked people what they wanted he would have designed faster horses, instead of a car.

There’s been a bit of hurumphing amongst design bloggers the new design hasn’t received the love that it deserves… for me, I was actually pretty underwhelmed by it. I see that the visual design and layout is ‘cleaner’ and has ‘more white space’. Sure. But the overall effect for me is that the content is less scannable.

I know it kind of flies in the face of ID conventions, but I find the large section headings distracting me from the content I’m actually scanning for – the specific types of listings – I’m not looking for a ‘jobs’ section, I’m looking for Internet jobs. Because of the terms used, I can tell, when I see them clustered, whether they’re jobs, real estate, classifieds, personals. I don’t actually need that heading much at all. In my opinion, the smaller, less distinct section headings on the original site work better – take less space are less distracting. I’m not looking at the jobs heading. It does nothing for me. So, while we’re at it – can we take that number away from the heading and break it down to each of the sections. Tell me how many Legal/Paralegal jobs there are. That’s all I’m interested in. You can have 25 thousand jobs on your site, but if you have none in my industry, what do I care?

The guys also specifically mentioned that search needs to be improved… then they go put it in that weird (as in unconventional) space. I’m pretty conservative when it comes to where I like my search (especially on a site where search is so important). This just seemed like a really odd choice to me. They’ve really taken the focus *off* search, IMHO. Not what I would have done.

Craigs The Original

The original (and current) Craigslist (as seen at
Craigs the Realigned

The ‘realigned’ design eyed craigslist (as seen at
And, for my final whinge… I don’t get why they took the interesting links and discussion forums and gave them such high priority in the RHS column of the layout. I actually find that really annoying and distracting – completely out of alignment with the task that I’m performing when I’m scanning over the clusters of content on the homepage. And not in alignment with their stated objectives for the ‘realignment’ of the site. (eh. Alignment appears to be my word of the day).

For me, the design eye guys didn’t quite get it right this year. I get the feeling that they didn’t quite get into the mind of the CraigsList user, maybe they asked their research questions a little wrong, and maybe the information design was a little off. If it were up to me, I’d probably stick with the original rather than changing over to this one… but then, the design eye guys did say there was still work to be done. It would be interesting to see some later iterations of their presented design.

But, that’s well and truly enough from me.

What do you think? Do you love the Design Eye’s version? Do you love original flavour CraigList? Let’s hear it…

Technorati Tags: , , , ,

UPDATE: Love the Ok/Cancel comic on this topic:

36 thoughts on “design is a good idea (on ugliness, with some thoughts on the DesignGuys Craiglist ‘realignment’)

  1. Great post! My designer friend and I tend to think that the old Craigslist design had a certain grungy attitude to it, which lended itself well to the free-for-all nature of Craigslist. The new one seemed minimal, but the colors suggest a capitalist slant to it. I guess that’s how I see the politics of design.

  2. Great post that recalls many of my own misgivings about the CL redesign.

    I actually don’t think not having big headings flies in the face of ID convention (unless we’re talking about Web 2.0 “user friendly means 48 point font” convention ;)) Highly salient headings are good for breaking up long paragraphs of monotonous text. Craigslist’s main page does not have that problem.

    The new design is less information dense and uses a lower contrast font, therefore, as you pointed out, is terrible for scanning. Add in the very weird prominent placement of interesting links and un-prominent placement of search, and that adds up to one heck of an underwhelming redesign.

    I should add that, looking at the “research”, it seemed to amount to the design guy asking three of his friends how they felt about the site and what they would improve if anything. The Ford quote says it all…

    I am sure that, on their own, each of the design guys has produced much better work than this. However, this particular horse produced by committee looks a lot like a camel to me. :)

  3. Let me get this straight… You’re a designer and you design based on what *you* like, rather than testing to see what the customer likes?

    That’s great, so long as your audience is you and everyone who thinks/sees/acts like you. Might be a bit limiting, though.

    Don’t get me wrong: your opinion is interesting and thoughtful. I’m glad I read it. But, frankly, I’d rather get my design guidance from a panel of average Joes than any number of experts.

    What else can I add? Your sneering comment about not trusting users pretty much says it all.

  4. ooh, J. That stings. I thought my comments about *potentially* not trusting everything that emerges from user research made it pretty clear that user research *does* form part of my methodology and that – in generally – feedback from user testing is infinitely valuable to the design process.

    What I’m trying to say is that if you ask users the wrong things, or ask them the wrong way, then the feedback you get will not be so useful.

    I think you’re being a little unfair here, but – thanks for your comment. I completely agree with the philosophy you’re espousing here and if I’m veering off course here, then its a good reminder to get back in line.

  5. I have a website that is somewhat cluttered “by design”
    My average Joe readers, clients and users love it and my geek friends and tech professionals hate it.
    The site is 8 years old and successful.
    What can I say.

  6. People like rainbows… flowers… kittens… Still, I would not be able to forgive myself if I’d give them what they want… Call me an artist…

  7. hey Eric,

    I checked out your site… you’re right, it’s definitely cluttered!

    Interesting that you have such a prominent link to your sitemap tho, which is – in effect, an alternate homepage for your site and very clean and scannable.

    I wonder how much traffic that page gets?

  8. @John: I don’t think that’s “being an artist” at all, I think that’s recognizing the importance of purpose and context. I like Cute Overload too, but I don’t think every site should strive to emulate it…

  9. That is such an on-the-money post. Your comments about moving the attention away from what counts matched my experience so closely I just had to laugh. I was wondering how many software jobs there were and had to squint just to find it.

    PS the cartoon is hilarious, i’ve been trying to tell our usability guy how crappy Neilson’s site is for ages now. well done.

  10. Hi,

    I’m glad there’s been some rebuttable the ‘ugly design works’ articles that have been about recently. It’s more a case that ugly design might not keep people away. Craiglist is really just like a garage-sale, and it’s design reflects that.

    I think seperating out design into IA/Visual design though isn’t appropriate. The usability, Information architecture, visuak look & feel, and overall experience are all part of the design process. A good designer will evaluate the clients needs through consultation, and design an appropriate solution. If the client requires the look to be basic and ‘home-made’ then that’s something a designer can do. Something can be well designed and friendly.

  11. I think the thing that is usually missed in these discussions is that a lot of visual design interferes with the functionality of the site (my GF is a graphic designer, I’m a web developer, we argue about this all the time).

    It seems that it doesn’t matter whether or not a site looks pretty, it just has to work. Having said that, the users seem to appreciate it if you have at least put a bit of effort into the esthetics, although they don’t tend to reward it with traffice.

    On a side note, I actually really like the look of

  12. Traverse,

    I have to emphatically disagree with yout there. If a website looks pretty, but doesn’t work, then it’s badly designed. Any designer will tell you that. Design is about looking at lots of different factors and deciding what’s best for your client. Functionality and Aesthetic design are _not_ mutually exclusive by any means whatsoever.

    Good design is combining all these factors into a great user experience for your clients customers.

  13. But, frankly, I’d rather get my design guidance from a panel of average Joes than any number of experts.

    GM thought they would design a vehicle around what “users” wanted and ended up with the Aztec, one of the most hideous and under selling vehicles in recent times. Most users usually want what they have now. Innovation comes from those who think past the norm and “average joes” aren’t capable of doing that.

  14. Greg, i don’t think I’m arguing with you – maybe just rephrasing your comment about “average joes”. As you’ve suggested, the problem with the GM approach to the research they did was that they assumed too much of the users they tested. When one frames user research it’s important to set boundaries around the kind of input you want from users. It’s one of the reasons Hollywood tests movies the way it does. In testing movies, for example, studios don’t ask users “do you think the turning point in Act Two should be earlier or later?”, even though (in Los Angeles, at least) there are hundreds of thousands of non-industry people who could offer an opinion on that. Rather, they ask questions related to how people *feel* about the movie.

    interestingly, people are probably more expert about what’s right and wrong with movies than almost any other product. After all, the average person watches several tens of thousands of hours of movies in their lifetime (when you’re 45 and wondering where your life went, there’s a clue!). But studios don’t expect users to know how to fix the things that come up in testing – they just use the testing as a guide to how users respond to the product that’s been designed.

    GM’s problem was that they took feelings and interpreted them as calls to action as though the test sample were designers. User-centred design should always be a combination of the way users respond and good design principles – taking the things users like and don’t like, and filtering them through professional expertise. I believe this was Leisa’s point. My point is that GM didn’t do enough of the latter – hence their failure.

  15. Wow, this is exactly the reason i normally don’t get into these discussions on public forums. Every one of you automatically place your selves higher on the totem pole than “average joes.” Who exactly are these “average joes,” and why are you above them? Is it just because you can formulate a rational opinion on a topic, which almost anyone can do, or because of some internal phycological problems with moralistic insecurities?

  16. Martin, I don’t think people are saying they’re better than ‘Average Joes’. Getting normal people to test a design/interface and hearing their feedback can be very useful, and a great part of the design process.

    You wouldn’t act on every suggestion they make though. A designer is a professional, and they know some things work, some things don’t work, whereas a lay person won’t. A smart person can provide good feedback and critique a building, but you’d still want and architect to made the final decisions.

    User feedback is great, but ultimately a professional will use that information in addition to their training, experience and talent. It’s the same in every industry.

  17. Leisa, great post! I love the Henry Ford quote and use that myself on occasion to start a conversation about why we can’t rely solely on user feedback.

    Ask a person why they bought a “blue Acura RX”, and the answer you’re likely to get is one that the person has created in their mind, a sort of cover for instinctive decisions made following intrinsic rules of fundamental human desires.

    It is sort of like that old saying – “the heart has reasons that reason doesn’t know about”.

    There is actually a proven psychological principle that sort of validates the Ford quote – it is called the Peril of Introspection Problem and it’s the result of some great work by UVA professor Timothy Wilson… asking people to think about what they want causes them to change their opinion of what they want. In fact, it screws up their ability to recognize what they want. To prove this he did a very simple experiment called the Poser Test, and it goes something like this:

    He had a bunch of posters in a room and brought in a group of college students and told them to “pick any poster you want, take it home and hang it up”. Then he brought in a second group of college students and told them to “pick any poster you want, tell me why you want it, take it home and hang it up.”

    A couple of months pass and he called up the students and says, that poster you got a couple of months back, do you like it? Do you still have it hanging on the wall? The kids in the first group, the ones that didn’t have to explain their choice, all still liked their poster. The kids in the second group, the ones that had to explain their choice, now hate their poster. Not only that, the kids who had to explain their choice all choose a very different poster. So, making people explain what they want causes them to change their preferences, and change them in a negative way. It causes them to gravitate towards something that they actually weren’t interested in.

    Now, there is one little detail here – there were two kinds of posters: there were these impressionist prints and then there were some posters of kittens hanging on a bar with a slogan that read “Hang in There Baby!” and the students who had to explain their choice overwhelmingly chose the kitten poster. The students who didn’t have to explain their choice overwhelmingly chose the impressionist painting – and all those with the impressionist poster were still happy. Why is that?

    Why is it when you ask someone to explain their preference do they gravitate towards the least sophisticated offering? It’s a language problem, right? You know in your head you like the impressionist painting, but you have to give an explanation for your choice and you don’t have the language to do that. What you do have the language to say is that, “well, I chose the kitten poster because I had a kitten when I was a kid” or “college is really stressful, I chose the motivational poster to help me get through the long nights of studying”. So, forcing someone to explain a choice when they don’t have the vocabulary to explain it automatically shifts them to the most conservative and the least sophisticated choice.

    People don’t know what they don’t know – so, asking people what they want in a website (or car or toothpaste) will yield answers analogous to the “faster horse” from the Ford quote.

    That is why so many design, process improvement or innovation projects fail – they are built on a foundation of false assumptions and misinformation.

    Getting user feedback is one step in a comprehensive design effort – the tricks are how you go about involving the users, how you gather their feedback and how you get beneath the surface of what they tell you.

  18. wow. so many smart people talking on my blog. how exciting :)

    I really hope that people go away thinking that we respect both visual designers *and* users. That’s certainly the case.

    but, as the examples above show, there are right and wrong ways to involve them a design project.

    I’ve not heard of the Peril of Introspection Problem before (I’m going to go do some more research tho’, thanks Jon!), but it’s well known, for instance, that if you ask someone how they perform a task, they’re not going to explain it to you accurately. People are incredibly bad a reporting on their own behaviour – especially behaviour that has become ingrained in their everyday life. The oft-quoted examples are around driving – you do it so often that you don’t remember what you *actually* do… so when asked, people tell what they think they *should* have done (or, what they would have done if they knew someone was watching!)

    it’s not that users don’t matter… they sure do. We just have to know how to get the best from them to inform the way we design.

  19. Leisa, yeah, my apologies – my comment might have come across as a little “ivory tower”. Like you, I have a tremendous respect for users, no question. Who would we design for if we didn’t have users???? They are the reason we exist!!! :-)

  20. Hrm. I wrote a blog post about this the other day.

    Summary of my thoughts…

    First of all, online space is a different space. It’s not unreasonable to think that folks react to “slickness” in a different way than meatspace. For over a decade now, it has been the unattractive sites that have been most rewarding to use… Ebay, Amazon, Yahoo, Google, Craigslist, MySpace, etc… Don’t you think that can color people’s opinions of ugly versus pretty?

    Jakob Neilsen did a great study about people’s negative response to content that isn’t OBJECTIVE. If people on the web small salesmanship/overt persuasion, they lose trust. What is pretty design if it’s not persuasive (or trying to be)?

    Finally, I’d throw out that a lot of stuff that’s PRETTY can interfere with information design… the two can co-exist, but they definately butt heads from time to time. Designers are too easily tempted by pretty things and tend to make UI concessions for the sake of being cool/pretty.

  21. Pingback: Andy Howard
  22. @Tony Wright:

    “What is pretty design if it’s not persuasive (or trying to be)?”

    It’s about aesthetics, I presume. Aesthetics is also a moral principle, not just a matter of taste and preference.

    Cheers, Daniel

Comments are closed.