If your browsing habits are anything like my own, you stopped going to eBay half a decade ago. It’s not necessarily that my penchant for old stuff has diminished–in fact, I’m more interested in vintage furniture and electronics than I’ve ever been before. It’s just that. I mean. It’s eBay. It’s a relic from the Geocities era.
“When eBays of the world first came online, the transaction needed to work. That was the bar,” eBay VP of Design Marie Floyd Tahir tells me. “It was like, oh my god, I can get this thing! I actually got my item! We’re so far from that now.”
The Internet was far from that bar, but eBay was not. The world had cell phones and social media, yet eBay had the same search-and-sort format it always had. So with that in mind, just over a year ago, Tahir and her team set out to give eBay its biggest homepage facelift since launch.
The most significant change is that they’ve instituted a new feature called the Feed. Fans of Pinterest will find it familiar. You put in a few key terms–like “Rolleiflex cameras” or “Dom Perignon”–and eBay will generate a custom, interest-centric, endlessly scrolling board of images for you to explore. Adding, deleting, and customizing these items (with a dauntingly specific list of categorical parameters) is extraordinarily easy. Better still, you can preview how new search terms will look, and everything is downright instantaneous to implement.
Notably, once your interests are set, this feed greets you every time from eBay.com. Maybe that doesn’t seem like a revolution, but contrast this with the eBay of yore: The site was essentially a search bar, supported by a few thumbnails of recently viewed items. It wasn’t just generally unattractive, it was unappealing, forcing the user to initiate the conversation anew each time.
“We [always] supported buying and selling in a transactional way. But the inspiration and discovery seemed like untapped potential areas,” Tahir explains. “Walking down the street and seeing something in a window and have it catch your eye–that’s the real-world experience we want to, not emulate, but make better.”
Taking their feed for a spin, I immediately found eBay to be a more inviting platform. I was welcomed by a variety of things I actually like–vintage Pyrex, classic Eames furniture, and old cocktail shakers (still searching for that perfect shaker, btw, if you have any suggestions), rather than a bunch of old offers that I’d already passed on or had already expired. I was discovering more, more quickly, simply because eBay stopped hiding their best goods behind a UI curtain.
Of course, while I thought that I was discovering more, more quickly, that was a bit of an illusion, or at minimum, a mental hack. Tiled images are more effective for discovery than lists because they slow your eye down, forcing it to zigzag through content, like reading a book, rather than enter an endless free-fall, like on Twitter. Part of the effectiveness of the feed is merely in that it gets me to actually look at the images eBay had all along. They really are forcing customers into a routine more akin to window shopping.
Even still, the design is only as effective as the infrastructure. Interest in Charles “Eames” flooded my feed with suggestions, not from eBay artificial intelligence or a reliable cross-referenced database but from eBay users who have spam-tagged every piece of old furniture with every midcentury modern designer in existence. So I was still left sorting through quasi-customized content, which can be a frustrating half-step away from true personalization.
The other problem is that in photo-forward design, the design is only as beautiful as the source photography. This works on Pinterest, as people share the most beautiful studio-produced thumbnails and the service is generally beautiful as a result. But on eBay, their source photography–at least for vintage items–inevitably consists of someone using a flash in front of a dusty, wrinkled curtain. Seriously. I knew eBay photography was bad, but I had no clue just how bad until my feed so eagerly showed me.
“It’s an issue we’ve been improving upon. In the two years since I’ve been here, we’ve rolled out policies to get rid of the graffiti–where items like camera kits are blasted with a number of different logos,” Tahir shares. “We’re making strides, but it comes with time, as [user] attitudes to photography change.”
So does that make eBay’s photo focus a mistake? Is the change “too soon” for a company so steeped in Internet tradition? I don’t think so. A more visual eBay can only offer sellers more incentive to sell visually. Besides, so far, users with the Feed activated visit eBay more often, for longer and buy more items than eBay users who don’t. Assuming that Feed cohort doesn’t simply include eBay’s most active users to begin with, it seems like things are working out better already.
(And note: If you have issues getting it to work in Chrome, try clearing out your cookies.)