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Thursday
Apr292004

eBay: Hokey on Purpose?

Lately my wife and I have been buying small things on eBay, enjoying the deals that can be had there. The other day, I was checking on recent purchase, when I noticed the eBay design. I don't know why I hadn't noticed its design before. Well, that's not exactly right — I'd noticed the eBay design before, but never really contemplated why it looks the way it does — you know, functional but a bit hokey.

Just think about it for a moment. If you've visited Amazon.com for instance, you can see just how slick a website can be. Amazon's look hasn't changed a whole lot in several years, but it is very polished and functional. But eBay... well it works but it looks like it was designed in 1997 by someone just learning to code HTML web pages. The graphics are slightly cheesy. It feels like features were hacked on as needed, without much thought as to how they worked together. This is a web designer's nightmare... or is it?

After some thought, I now believe the hokey design of eBay could be completely intentional. It might be that eBay actually sees the hokeyness of their design as a feature, not a bug.

Consider the design of eBay: it's practical, powerful and reasonably useable but admittedly, a little hokey. Okay, very hokey. However, I think that hokeyness is what exudes the feel of a home-grown community. The design isn't overly professional and slick entirely on purpose, because that would take away the current "feel" of eBay. The very un-slickness of eBay sends the message "we're just a bunch of regular folks, selling stuff. No time for flashy design, 'cause selling stuff is more important." There is an attractive, populist appeal in this.

I think Tradition and familiarity also play a part in the design. eBay has a real, long-standing identity on the web, one which is very, very valuable. I've experienced the difficulties companies face when considering significant identity changes — it's a very hard decision. Companies must ask themselves "how much can we change our look before confusing or even losing our loyal customers?" Facing this, companies often err on the side of caution and familiarity. Just consider the New Coke fiasco, and how in short order so-called "Classic" Coke re-appeared. That was a lesson in changing an identity a bit too much.

eBay's design stasis may partly be that eBay is stuck with the design. It could be that because the site was indeed designed in 1997, those pages are very hard to convert to more modern structures now. Can you imagine the impact of changing everything, every last dog-gone auction on eBay? That could be a nightmare. I've no idea how many active and archived auctions there are at this moment, but I suspect quite a few.

Whatever the case, I believe it doesn't matter because the eBay design is intended to be slightly hokey. Its design sends the right message to their users. How funny that in a world of slickness and perfection, one of the most powerful, money making sites on the net might actually want to look hokey on purpose. I find this ironic and refreshing. :-)

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