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Why Ugly Design Makes Sense… for Craigslist

Simple, clean, and purposeful design can make any boring product look like the next billion dollar investment. It’s no secret that elegant web design is just as (if not more) important as the content. Today, many popular websites are simply and gracefully designed, which got me thinking.

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I recently moved apartments and am deep in the nesting stage. All I want to do is search for that quirky mid-century modern chair or big colorful rug. Considering I’m a 20-something, this is my first legit apartment (aka no drywall or plastic countertops), and I’ve never heard back from Extreme Home Makeover, my budget is rather modest. So needless to say, Craigslist and I have become incredibly close over the past few weeks. After a few hours of browsing the CL, I started wondering how a site that hasn’t had any major aesthetic updates since it launched in 1996 could have 50 billion page views per month, be profitable and essentially immortal. Craigslist’s founder doesn’t dare dream of touching the “timeless” design, despite the many attempts and pleas from designers to revamp the site. Here’s why Mr. Craig should not update the design.

Simple, intuitive interface

Craigslist’s categories are so easy to understand. I realized how user-friendly Craigslist was when my mother told me she was going to spend the morning looking at Craigslist for furniture for me. People, this is huge. For my mother to do anything technology-focused is a great feat. She gets confused about how to send a text message and still doesn’t understand how you can have multiple browser tabs open. She volunteered to use Craigslist, so it must be super simple. You click on your city, select the category you’re interested in, and search for that diamond in the rough. No excessive colors, banner ads or tricky navigation.

Remember this when you think of your company’s website. Would a non-tech-savvy person want to use it? Would they enjoy using it? Make it simple, intuitive and obvious.

Focus and purpose

Whether it’s a piece of furniture, an apartment, a job, or some free cat food, Craigslist visitors are either searching for something or intending to post an ad for something. That’s pretty much it. Thanks to Craigslist’s incredibly plain and straightforward, (some say) ugly design, both of these tasks are incredibly simple. You enter your search term in the bar, you’re done. There are no pop-up ads, buzzword-stuffed headlines, they don’t give two craps about SEO, and there is nothing snazzy to watch after forking over your email address.

The website is 100% focused on accomplishing two things: enabling a user to post something and enabling a user to find something. It’s a glorified classifieds website that just makes sense.

Stays true to its roots

The basic design of Craigslist’s website is a huge part of its overall identity and branding. As stated earlier, Craigslist is simple, streamlined, and purposeful, which makes its brand and purple peace sign symbol instantly recognizable and oddly iconic. Despite evolving design trends, Craigslist stayed true to its bare-boned and focused roots. Someone that used Craigslist in 1999 and got frozen in time could wake up in 2015 and still know exactly what to do with the site. When companies redesign their websites for the sake of staying current, users often get confused and frustrated. Since the purpose of Craigslist never changed and stays true its basic roots of helping people post or find something, a slicker design is unnecessary. A redesign makes perfect sense when the purpose of the site changes, new products take priority, or the company rebrands itself. In other words, if it’s not broken, don’t fix it. It’s not the prettiest site, it’s definitely old school, but it serves a purpose better than any other classifieds site.

Despite the lack of innovation and aesthetics, Craigslist triumphs as a profitable and widely popular website that attracts 60 million people per month in the US alone; which if you do the math, means each visitor generates 800 pageviews. That’s a ton of hunting for the perfect coffee table. No matter how many smaller startups try to disrupt Craigslist or redesign its UI, Craigslist will remain a sticky site that dominates the marketplace.

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