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Is flea market design successful for eBay?

Victor speculates that eBay’s not-so-great site design might be responsible for their success:

Conventional wisdom - at least with the folks I hang out with - says that auctions, plus EBay’s first-mover advantage - is such a compelling experience that people will tolerate the bad design. But what if EBay is succeeding because of its bad design? What if, like a flea market’s rough, seller-created environment, the amateur design communicates the idea of bargain?

I remember talking about this issue with Stewart and Jason in preparation for our panel on Simplicity in Web Design for SXSW 2002. I can’t recall if we talked specifically about eBay, but we did discuss The Drudge Report and Google. Drudge maintains his independant DIY credibility with the site’s amateur design and Google’s simple design and unprofessional visual branding gained the allegience of geeks and general Web users looking for no-nonsense search results.

Like Peter, I believe eBay could benefit significantly by a “tightening up of their experience”, but Victor is right in emphasizing the importance of the site’s flea market feel. Useful design doesn’t necessarily need to be “slick” or “high tech” (a feeling which eBay needs to stay well away from, except when it comes to their security and fraud prevention efforts). Look at Ikea. They’re known for cheap home furnishings and housewares, yet they focus a great deal of attention on design, not only for their products, but for their stores, catalogs, factories, signage, etc. eBay could definitely achieve a similarly successful balance with their site.