I spotted an interesting article in the Washington Post, which looks at online auction giant eBay and its plans to improve the user experience in 2008.

The story focuses on eBay’s proposed introduction of a shipping fees ratings scheme, to clamp down on sellers who charge bargain basement prices but make profits on exorbitant delivery ‘costs’.

All good, but what about the improvements that eBay’s website has been in need of for a considerable time? Adding functionality and tweaking its ranking algorithms are one thing, but what I think it needs is some proper usability testing and a bit of a makeover.

eBay has always been in a weird place when it comes to its website, which consistently suffers from poor usability, despite what Meg Whitman thinks. What should it do? Change a winning model? Or continue doing what it does best? There’s a risk involved, either way.

The company has broadly opted for the latter. If it ain’t broke, I guess. eBay is clearly very good at online auctions, and in the absence of any significant competition the culture might be one of ‘stand still, because we don’t need to move’. Which translates as: ‘to hell with sexy interfaces and above-the-fold feature filtering’.

Change isn’t normally something people like, so it makes some kind of sense to maintain familiarity. Yet eBay hasn’t changed for, give or take, the best part of a decade. It is a bit of an enigma in this respect.

Think about it. eBayers seem to be a relatively happy-go-lucky bunch who seem to enjoy the overall experience of finding bargains, taking part in auctions, or simply windowshopping. For them, the experience is all about the products on offer. But perhaps in 2007 these people expect a bit more from a web experience?

There’s a school of thought that web users have grown savvier over the past few years, largely the result of widespread broadband penetration. Broadband users spend more time online. They spend more money. They will be adept at noticing what works and what doesn’t. Or, to put it another way, what annoys, and what doesn’t.

So broadband has helped change people’s habits, and has certainly helped to deliver a better all-round online user experience, since speed is one of the basic things to address. I wonder what these people expect from a typical web user experience, in 2007? I suspect that they want things to be smoother, faster, better. People’s expectations are changing, if they haven’t changed already.

And it’s not that eBay hasn’t noticed. Earlier this year eBay revamped its homepage, for the first time in eight years. But internet years are like dog years: the difference between 1999 and 2007 is vast.

Accordingly, it seems that eBay is well behind the times, compared to young upstarts like Digg, which is a lot closer to perfecting its online user experience. Digg is a truly iterative website, akin to the early days of Flickr, with minor improvements rolled out most weeks. Maybe Team Digg is agile, whereas Team eBay isn’t? I know which environment I prefer to work in, and it isn’t a static, hierarchical one.

If eBay does adopt a more agile approach, then it can embark on lots of small changes to finesse its site. There are some quick wins to be had. For example, I don’t think that eBayers should be forced to scroll two pages below the fold to narrow search options (necessary with many eBay searches, given that there are often thousands of items listed). In a world of whizzy Ajaxy goodness it seems incredible that there isn’t a more efficient way of doing this.

There are plenty of other examples – big old legacy sites that people know how to use, that work, that have done well historically (FriendsReunited springs to mind, as do a bunch of travel-related websites). I get the feeling that some of these companies are resting on their laurels.

It is very easy to stand very still if your company is the dominant force in its sector, but there are definite risks involved from being too static.

Will familiarity of old-school user experiences breed contempt among increasingly savvy web users in 2008? And how do you think a site like eBay should move forward?

Further Reading

That Washington Post article