Posted by: rolfsky | January 18, 2008

when ugly is better

One of the consistent “complaints” about Craigslist I hear repeated over and over again is that it is ugly. Now, granted, the Web 0.8 color-scheme may look “shabby” in comparison to eBay’s own entry into the market Kijiji, but maybe the “glorified classifieds” look works to its benefit.

To explain why, I’ll paraphrase Bill Strickland who came to speak at eBay this week:

Environment shapes attitude.

(By the way, Bill was a captivating speaker and I encourage you go buy his book.)

Bill is a truly remarkable guy who has done some amazing things, one of which is building stunning Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired facility in one of the worst areas in Pittsburgh. At this campus he runs a programs to inspire and revitalize kids and adults.

For more than 30 years Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild has been a unique haven—a multi-disciplined arts and learning center that fosters a sense of belonging, interconnections, and hope within the urban community.

He believes that if you give people first-class facilities, they will give you first-class results.

So back to Craigslist, why do they stick with the drab, 6-color display? (2, if you don’t count shades of grey)

Shouldn’t they be inspired too?

I think it all has to do with perception. The visual layout and attention to detail promises nothing more than the raw data in a legible display. And maybe that is a good thing. Without a monstrous police force monitoring the listings, Craig needs users to be on guard and use their best judgment. They make no assurances that things will go well in a transaction.

So, “cleaning up” Craigslist would be like hiring Disney characters to walk the streets of the slums. Sure, it would look nicer, but it wouldn’t be any safer. Leaving Craigslist as simple it is reinforces the notion that they are an impartial presenter of information, what you do with it is up to you.

The implications of this are huge. When someone has a transaction go bad on Craigslist, they universally describe the guilty party as “some guy” from Craigslist. On eBay, because we’ve hidden the seller behind some “assurances” and suddenly the guilty party is no longer “some guy”, but instead is now directly eBay.

I know there’s an important lesson here about scaling your business look to match your capability. 🙂



  1. […] ugly is better. Rolf Skyberg on how the perception of vanilla websites can help users expectations on […]

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