eBay shares lessons learned from designing site
By Mathew Schwartz
(IDG) -- Online auction site eBay is big. Very big.
"We have over 24 million users right now," says Laura Borns, senior usability engineer at San Jose-based eBay Inc., "and over 6 million items for sale." Every day, eBay serves its users 100 million unique page views. "The site is huge and has just grown tremendously," says Borns.
But sites of eBay's size and growth rate always have special usability concerns, says Kipp Lynch, director of user experience at NerveWire Inc., a management consulting and systems integration firm in Newton, Mass. "You've got this huge amount of data, and there are usually two ways to get at it: search and browse," Lynch says. EBay does search "reasonably well," he says. But when it comes to browsing, taxonomy (deciding which items go into which categories) is tricky.
"Taxonomies are really difficult," says Lynch. "Everyone is always struggling with it; no one has gotten it right." Other large sites such as Sunnyvale, Calif.-based Yahoo Inc. face similar problems, he says.
EBay struggles with its fast growth, constantly turning to users to gauge new designs and taxonomies. The company also tries to keep its Web site design as simple as possible so users can find what they're looking for quickly.
As eBay grows, new categories are sometimes added to more accurately classify the 6 million items on the site being offered in auctions.
"The user interface that worked three or four years ago doesn't necessarily work now. Who knew that when we were designing a site with 60,000 items and a handful of categories, we'd so soon have to make it support over 6 million items and thousands of categories?" says Alex Poon, senior director of advanced technology at eBay.
Poon should know; he redesigned eBay's taxonomy in 1999. Because rapid growth can derail many designs, eBay pays extra attention to how well any new feature will scale. "For example, when we redesigned our navigation bar two years ago, we considered placing our top-level categories into the navigation bar but decided against it, knowing that we would eventually run out of space," says Poon.
All sites should plan for quick, unexpected growth spurts by doing upfront usability testing before the sites launch, says usability guru Jakob Nielsen, principal of the Nielsen Norman Group in Fremont, Calif. Because "once you get a big installed user base, you need to have very slow moves and slow changes," he says, or else hundreds of thousands of users could get lost. And at that point, no help desk would be equal to the challenge.
"There's a myth that on the Web, just because your user interface lives on a server, you can change it at any time," he says. "And that's technically true, but not from a usability perspective."
EBay listens to users in forums and surveys and even flies in groups to meet at its offices every month. But in spite of all that research, users can still react unexpectedly. And when it comes to design, sometimes eBay has to sneak changes past users.
Take what happened in June of 1999. After a month of vetting with users, eBay launched a redesigned site. Before launch, users had praised the beta design on eBay-related message boards. But soon after its official launch, the site crashed for about a day and experienced some other intermittent problems.
The company immediately reinstated the old site design and disabled various personalization and advanced search features in order to find the problem. It turned out that the outage was cause by a glitch in the Solaris operating system powering eBay's fleet of Sun Microsystems Inc. Enterprise 10000 servers, according to public comments made at the time by Sun CEO Scott McNealy.
In an open letter of apology to users, eBay founder Pierre Omidyar said that "there was no relation between Wednesday's outage and the launch of our new site design." But eBay reinstated the old design immediately, concerned that the new design and the outage may have become synonymous in some users' minds.
The crash and outcry over the redesign made eBay retrench and go more slowly. It began to roll out the updated design very, very slowly -- a new page here, a navigation bar there. No one cried foul.
A few years ago, when eBay designers opted to change the background color of every page from yellow to white, they actually changed the shade of the pages in almost imperceptible increments daily for months, until the pages were finally white.
"If they'd flipped a switch and gone from yellow to white, everyone would have screamed," said eBay senior usability engineer Laura Borns. "But no one had any complaints about it, because it was so gradual."
Sometimes even false user perceptions must be considered in designing new features. On a home-page redesign in March of last year, eBay produced a page that was "very colorful and looked very graphically intense," yet took less time to load than the older version, says Borns.
However, in testing the page with a few thousand users, concerns arose. "We showed them an image of the page -- it didn't actually work -- and they said, 'This page has so many graphics on it, it's going to take forever to load,' " says Borns. "We knew it loaded faster, but because they thought it wouldn't, we ended up paring it down a little bit."
No matter what the information architecture is, keeping so much data easily accessible is an ongoing chore. "We don't have all the bangs and whistles of some of the sites that are out there. Because of all the users, we need to simplify what's on the site," Borns says. "One of the main things we hear from them is, 'Keep it simple.' "
"No one would say, 'Wow, [eBay] should win a design award,' but it's very simple, very usable," says Lynch. He praises the site for using such traditional navigation features as tabs and plain-text links. "What's good is they're not trying to be clever anywhere," he says÷in other words, it's not technology for technology's sake.
But there are still a lot of categories. And although any improvement helps, eBay could perhaps approach things differently. "It's intimidating for the first-time buyer. I don't think [eBay] provides enough hand-holding," says Nielsen. "You're thrown into an interface with 5 million things and concepts."
Underscoring all of eBay's design issues, however, is the fact that its users are often collectors who will fill out any number of screens or suffer any interface to get what they want. "Collectors are a bizarre bunch. There are people who collect barbed wire," notes Lynch. And they do so fanatically. At eBay, "you've got really motivated users, and motivation can overcome a lot of usability issues," he says.
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