Is E-Bay Usable?

by William Grosso

Related link:

So I'm thinking about picking up a used computer system or two. I went to, looked around. There wasn't anything compelling there. But I noticed the "go to ebay" buttons in the upper right hand corner, and I thought "I haven't used e-bay in years. Maybe they'll have something."

I clicked around for a while and couldn't really find anything. So I did a search. I searched for "server class computer" and got back a single result (for "Professional Java Server Programming"-- good to know there's a market for 5 year old Wrox books).

Trying "server computer" got back lots of results, none of which seemed useful.

Then I clicked "View Category | All" -- that leads to
The Big Ontology
, which is actually fascinating. Did you know "Barware" is a separate category of collectible?

Then I clicked on "Desktop PCs" and was confronted with a list of the first n items in a list of 9021 items. It gave me a summary of each system; I was supposed to click on a link associated with a particular item to get a drill-down page. The list is pretty readable, I suppose; the same information (CPU, etcetera) is available for each system. But the drill down pages are awful. They seem to be more about establishing the seller's reputation than about the product. So you get these enormous pages with the data you're interested in somewhere near the bottom.

Chossing a drill-down page at random, the page consists of:

  1. The information that was in the previous page.
  2. An offer for a free hat if I buy now (with a picture of the hat)
  3. A list of reasons why the seller is a good company
  4. A picture of a generic case
  5. Three pictures of generic cables.
  6. A claim that the price is a special value internet only deal and that I should act now.
  7. The actual details of what's inside the machine, done in random order and with a level of detail that's quite silly (I now know that the cooling fan has ball bearings. I guess I might have cared about that).
  8. Shipping Terms
  9. An advertisement for PayPal

So, in order to find out about this machine, I have to get to the big list, pick this machine out from the big list, go to the drill-down page, scan down a not-particularly well-formatted page of mostly useless information, and eventually realize it's not really what I want.

Total running time: 3 to 5 minutes.

I'm not sure what my point is. I guess if I knew exactly what I was looking for, e-bay might work for me. But it doesn't really seem to scale to the vast quantities of different items and different sellers very well.

What's worse, while I can imagine there's a market for software to assist people who plan to sell on e-bay, it's harder to imagine a market for software to assist people who plan to buy on e-bay (unless you're a very frequent buyer, the value of the software is minimal).

Do you use e-bay? If so, how? What would you do make e-bay more usable for people who are browsing?


2004-05-09 12:37:11
It's not eBay really
It's the sellers. I don't know if you've ever tried to sell something there — if you did, you'll know that the besides the stock eBay stuff at the top and bottom, the auction page is (more or less) free-form HTML. In other words, what you're seeing is a case of amateur marketers.. and as we know from Joe Random User homepages and the typical HTML mail, they have little clue about design, presentation, writing, or anything else involved; instead, they tend to love colourful pictures and pointless glitz strewn about the place.
2004-05-09 14:30:24
Where do I start?

"I haven't used Ebay in years..."
WTF? How do I now take anything you say or write seriously? That is akin to the Pope asking about pointy hats. Please tell me that's a joke on someone like me who doesn't regularly read your stuff.

Ebay's search functions aren't the best, but they aren't serving a stock catalog of items for the most part. Lots of people list lots of things. As in millions of items are available on a rapidly changing basis. If you are Ebay you try making all these things searchable in a more cohesive manner and make the system as user friendly for the people posting their auctions. Oh, yeah it's still an auction site... though I think Ebay would eventually like to move away from this model.

Most of the people on Ebay aren't marketers and aren't arrogant HTML know-it-alls. Actually putting together the add to sell that old hard drive or the unwanted Xmas gift is actuallly difficult for most people--you know those millions of people that make Ebay the most profitable site on the internet.

I think it goes without saying by most people that Ebay is one of the "killer apps" that makes the internet worth having.

I don't want to come off as an Ebay zealot, but I thought that this was really a awkward way to complain about a "very" widely used service. Forgive the length of this rant, please.

2004-05-09 14:53:45
Rhetoric aside, I don't think you disagreed
So, let's start at the beginning. I buy things from a wide variety of sources on the net, but haven't purchased from E-bay in a long long time. I'm not sure how that disqualifies what I said, though. If anything, I would think it makes my point more valid-- when someone with a fair amount of computer knowledge but little experience with E-Bay tries to use it, he or she confronts a usability and learning curve that's really quite impressive.

Past that, my point was that I was browsing, and I found the browsing experience completely unfriendly. I even listed the steps and timed how long it took to figure things out. To which, I think you replied

"Most of the people on Ebay aren't marketers and aren't arrogant HTML know-it-alls. Actually putting together the add to sell that old hard drive or the unwanted Xmas gift is actuallly difficult for most people--you know those millions of people that make Ebay the most profitable site on the internet."

Leaving the almost-certainly-intended-to-be-an-insult beginning, and ignoring the non-sequitur ending, you seem to be saying "most people who use E-Bay to sell merchandise aren't particularly skilled, and E-Bays lets millions of people with no particular skills display their wares."

Which, I think, means that you're about 90% of the way towards acknowledging that there are some pretty severe usability issues.

What's more, I'd be curious. Do people browse E-bay? Or do they do searches for particular products model numbers? Do people find out about specific products elsewhere, and then look for exactly that item on E-Bay (in much the same way that people sometimes browse their local bookstore and then shop on-line)?

Past that, assuming you agree that E-Bay has some usability issues, how would you solve them? Does E-bay need a better browsing interface? More uniformity in presentation? What?

2004-05-09 20:03:02
First and last comment
I added this blog a few months ago to my newsreader feed because I expected to read posts that reflect the quality of the O'Reilly brand. With the exception of Tim O'Reilly's occasional posts I find the other opinions here a complete waste of time. I'm sorry I picked your post for my first and last comment on this blog but your post does represent my dissatisfaction with the quality, or lack of it, on this blog.

You're dissapointed with eBay because a search as vague as "server class computer" did not yield good results? I frequently use eBay to look for good prices on computer gear and I find that if you're specific on what you want you don't have to waste too much time. The search system allows you to specify both inclusion and exclusion criteria and helps you get good responses to your queries.

2004-05-09 20:22:21
Sorry to hear that.
I'm sorry you're disappointed. Both with what I've written and with the writings on the O'Reilly weblogs in general.

But if you read what I wrote again, I'm not "disappointed" in E-Bay in the sense you're thinking of. I design software for a living and I'm curious-- is it possible to have a large-scale online market with lots of individual sellers that doesn't rely on users knowing a lot about which they're looking for. E.g. one in which keyword search isn't the primary user interface for successful shopping?

I described how, in some detail, what I encountered when trying to use E-Bay to browse, in order to establish what we're talking about. Perhaps the level of detail was boring, especially if you use E-bay frequently and already know the interface, but not unreasonable if you are me. Because I want to know (1) make sure all the readers understand the problem, (2) see if my ignorance of E-Bay is causing me to miss something and (3) think about how to build a better E-Bay (e.g. what could be done different and or better).

Your comment that you "find that if you're specific on what you want you don't have to waste too much time" helps me a little bit in that I'm guessing I didn't miss some aspect of the UI (my second question).

2004-05-09 23:26:30
It's not eBay really
In fact, it IS eBay.
If they provided better templates for people to fill in there would be more uniformity.
Provide product info at the top of the page instead of the bottom and the potential buyer doesn't have to scroll down looking for it.
etc. etc. etc.

While it may be nice and flexible for companies using eBay as a portal for their online store to have complete flexibility (I hope those companies at least have someone who knows HTML though from seeing many of their pages I doubt it) for Joe Random it's bewildering in the extreme leading to pretty useless pages.
Of course those companies provide the bulk of income for eBay nowadays so they (eBay) probably couldn't care less than loosing the occasional amateur seller a sale because noone recognised his/her product for what it's worth.

2004-05-10 07:33:22
Never had a problem
I've typically been able to find what I'm looking for... Think of it more as a trip to Costco than a trip to the normal grocery store. Sometimes, they just don't have what you want... not EBay's fault.
BTW - for server equipment, my coworkers and I had good success finding equipment on UBid (which is focused on electronic equipment). I don't know if it is still good in this area, though, as the company I work for got bought by a large corporation and "UBid" is not on the procurement department's list... so your mileage may vary.
2004-05-10 08:19:17
Use like Google, get a Mac...
To answer your questions (though I am not the original poster). I browse eBay whenever I am shopping for computer stuff. For instance, I'm currently looking for some 900mhz wireless computer speakers. I searched eBay first, just to get an idea of what's out there and what the price range is. And yes, at the same time I might do a search for "wireless computer speakers review" or something similar to get some specific product names to type into eBay. I think most techie-types do this, hence the incredulous response from the previous poster--it's hard to do good research on a product's price point without going on eBay. It's very much a valuator--this is their biggest stealth asset, and I'd look for them to leverage it in the future.

Using the drill-down menu is for suckers. Surely you have an idea of the Mhz you want? Type that in, maybe along with a brand name you like. Think of eBay as a being googly--how often do you use Google's directory listing? Almost never, I'd bet--you just type in what you want. Use the same strategy with eBay.

Finally, yes, the interface could use some work. The problem is that sellers get carried away--this is not eBay's fault. Sometimes it feels like 1993 on there with all the blinking text and animated GIFs!

My quick answer to this? Get a Mac. Using the eBay Sherlock plug-in has made my eBay browsing experience much, much better. And, I suspect, as eBay's use of web services becomes more and more refined, many of your complaints will be answered.

Good luck!

P.S. Anyone have wireless speakers they like? So far from what I've read, I'm thinking I'll stay wired and get some h/k soundsticks...

2004-05-10 09:00:40
usability, as in the engineering discipline?
And haven't we gotten spoiled a bit?

With all the noise about Google's IPO, I think that it's gotten less usable over the years .. more pages, but more non sequiturs found.

Ebay's search works very well when compared with an IE browser or PDF reader Find function. Meaning, it searches for exact matches, no plurals, no punctuation, no misspellings. Most dis-usability comes from the vendors, who have never heard of bugs. Did you search for "servers", "server's", "srever", etc.? You might find what you want there.

2004-05-10 16:13:02
usability, as in the engineering discipline?
I don't know if I'm spoiled or not. I had lunch today with a colleague I hadn't seen in a while and I mentioned this weblog entry. He looked at me for a moment and said "It's completely unusable. People are disagreeing?"

So, if I'm spoiled, I'm not the only one.

Search that requires exact matches is just not a solution to finding things on E-Bay.

The point of all this was not to slag E-Bay (really!) and not to find a user server class computer (easy enough to do on the web) but to wonder, out loud, what I'm missing.

It appears that I'm not missing anything. The user experience isn't very good, but people have adapted to it and are willing to be rude in E-Bay's defense. Presumably because E-Bay offers so much other value that a bad user experience can be forgiven (my colleague at lunch today also suggested that this is the definition of a killer app: An application that people are willing to spend a lot of time using in spite of the fact that it annoys them).

2004-05-11 09:36:50
usability, as in the engineering discipline?
You didn't resond to my below comment, but I think it bears repeating: Sherlock on a Mac makes the experience much better.

Though I suppose that a third party has to help smooth the usability problem is the sign of an interface that could certainly use improvement.

But still, I don't understand why you are using the drill-down fault eBay for that portion of their interface is like faulting Google for theirs when you can't find something in the Google "Directory" listing. Just search eBay with terms.

Just curious--what other sites have "spoiled" you?

2004-05-11 11:28:12
usability, as in the engineering discipline?
I don't have a mac. And I have no idea if I'm spoiled. That was someone else's suggestion.

Right now, I think the evidence, from talking to people, is that people mostly use E-Bay by searching for exact matches. They don't really "browse" E-Bay very much, or make serendipitous purchases.

Is that true?

One question I'm now wondering is: what percentage of goods registered on E-Bay sell (or sell on their first attempt) ? Anyone know any references?
How effective is E-bay as a marketplace?

2004-05-11 12:12:05
usability, as in the engineering discipline?
i browse ebay all the time--i'm surprised to hear that you've found the opposite.

yesterday i did a search for "wireless speakers" because i had no idea what was out there. ebay returned 10+ specific and different product names in seconds. i could expand my search from this starting point and had an instant idea of the price range. that, to me, is useful information--i knew diddly about wireless speakers going into this.

as for serendipitous purchases, i only buy maybe 4-5 items on ebay a year--to me, the site's strength is as a valuator.

are you spoiled? singling out ebay for a bad interface makes it appear as you believe other sites do a much better job at this. if ebay is not "usable," what is?

ebay is an _extremely_ effective marketplace. see this interview/article from yesterday's wired news:,1367,63378,00.html

"...In just the first quarter of this year, our users traded $8 billion."

8 BILLION! that's what i call effective.

2004-05-11 12:26:23
Measuring effectiveness
Total volume of transactions isn't a particularly good measure of effectiveness.

"What percentage of listed goods sell" is a better one.

"Comparison of prices gotten by sellers from E-Bay versus other marketplaces" is another one.

"Percentage of customers who use E-Bay as their first choice marketplace" is a third one.

Does any data on this sort of thing exist (outside of "internal to E-Bay").

2004-05-12 08:32:50
Measuring effectiveness
"Total volume of transactions isn't a particularly good measure of effectiveness."

In some cases, I might agree with this statement. In the case of eBay, however, I'm going to disagree.

You're correct, statistics are difficult to find--in part because eBay offers such a mind-blowing array of options for sales. "Percentage of listed goods" is already too broad a category. Goods put up for auction with no reserve price? These should sell on the first go-around (even if it's for a penny). Goods that have a "buy it now" price? I would imagine the sell-through is lower for these. High-end good? Low-end? There's just so much there that any "average" figure may be quite misleading!

As for prices, what other marketplaces are your options for selling and getting a good price? The key to eBay is convenience. My parents, they want to have a yard sale every year. And that's cool, but it's a bit of work--you have to make signs and put an ad in the paper and shoo away the early birds and then you have to haggle with your parents like this. Me, I prefer to slap my old crap up on eBay. And I guarantee you that I get a higher price than I would if I sold it at my parent's garage sale. Not to mention that my parents would probably charge a much higher commission than eBay's relatively low rate! (I think this is another great thing about eBay--it's inexpensive for casual sellers to use.) And finally--you know what? Many of the more informed sellers have an idea of the maximum they want to pay for an item at the garage sale. Why? Because they "saw one just like it on eBay for 5 bucks less!"

Who knows about eBay as a first choice? And frankly, who cares? This is definitely not a measure of effectiveness! We're talking about 32 BILLION dollars in sales over the course of a year. Apparently people are using it at least every now and then--even if it's not their first pick.

I'm sorry I don't have hard data. You could check the eBay Annual Report--they often list some statistics. It's also (as I remember) usually very pessimistic/conservative and includes many warnings about the dangers inherent in the online auction business. Very informative!

Good luck!

2004-05-13 17:47:49
I mostly agreed
I do agree that Ebay has usability issues. I think you greatly exaggerate the extent of those problems, however. To the point of being disingenuous..

From your reply I get the sense that you are somehow trying to treat Ebay as if it were the actual merchant of the goods you want to buy. I just can't agree with approaching Ebay from that standpoint. Ebay is the market--not the merchant (excluding things like, etc.).

The problems you describe are caused by the merchants for the most part. The Ebay engine can only return to you what the sellers put out for it to find.

The way to solve this could only come (as you suggest in your reply) a more uniform manner of presentation. This was actually done recently when Ebay revamped its interface last year. Searches are still hit and miss, but mostly hit.

Try searching for Opus dolls next time.

2004-05-14 23:03:20
Sometimes there's such a thing as "too much freedom"
Ebay, like Napster (in the early days) and many other cutting-edge apps, has just barely enough usability in order to let users do what they need to do. In other words, it won't necessarily be easy or fun, but there's not really any other game in town, so users grumble and swallow their complaints, and eventually get their work done.

I really think that EBay could benefit a lot from a complete usability overhaul, which especially emphasizes standardization of auction pages. Currently, sellers can customize their pages way too much (IMO), which is why so many item pages are ugly, unusable messes.

It basically allows each seller to try their hand at designing a good item page, with no real consequences for doing a bad job, because the vast majority of other sellers are equally unqualified at designing good usability interfaces. As I said, too much freedom.

EBay needs to research good usability and apply a much more consistent standard across their site, especially on item/selling pages. Unfortunately, due to network effects, they really don't have much incentive to improve their site in this regard because there's not much competition at this point :(