What’s in it for me?

I’ve been interested to watch the response to the new Trade Me design, which was launched this past week.

There has been a pretty caustic reaction on the message boards, with some long time members getting a bit worked up.

It’s amusing, from the outside at least, to see everybody asking for the old design back, forgetting that they hated that design too when it was first launched.

This is not the first time that Trade Me has changed the design of the site.

In fact, it has only ever changed.

There was a good article in Slate earlier this year about the controversial Facebook re-design, which I think is relevant:

“How can I be so sure that you’ll learn to like the re-design? Because you did the last two times Facebook did it. In 2006, Facebook added the original news feed to its site.  People hated it. They said the feed cluttered their home pages and violated their privacy. [CEO Mark Zuckerberg] responded with a blog post titled, ‘Calm down. Breathe. We hear you.’ Facebook tweaked the feed a bit, but the redesign stuck. Zuckerberg’s instinct was right on. In time, the news feed became Facebook’s signature feature, the part of the site that everyone checked first. Last summer, Facebook redesigned its front page to give more weight to the news feed. Again, millions protested. But once more, people learned to love the new site—stats show members started using Facebook more often.”

That’s an important lesson: watch what people do and react to that, rather than paying too much attention to what they say they are going to do.

The numbers will quickly tell you if you’ve got it right or messed up!

I remember when Nigel was working on a tab re-design, to accommodate a new “Sell” tab. I was quite fond of the existing design and thought it looked better with only four tabs. But, luckily he didn’t listen to me, because that change turned out to be one of the single most successful design changes ever made to the site (and blindingly obvious in hindsight).

So, with my past track record in mind, there are three things about this latest design that I think are noteworthy…

Does mark-up make a difference?

Trade Me have called the new design a “clean and modern layout”.

Maybe tabs that actually look like tabs are now classical? I’m not sure?

Is fixed-width the new black? On the surface at least, it’s a bit ironic to move to a fixed-width design in response to larger screen sizes.  On the other hand, I’m sure that working with a fixed size canvas will make it significantly easier to make design changes to the body of pages in the future.

I wonder if most of the cleaning and modernising they are talking about has actually occurred under the covers.

The HTML that makes up the new home page has changed significantly.

The <table> tags and one square pixel spacer images of yesterday have been replaced by CSS and some shiny new semantic mark-up.

Although, there is still one remaining <table> tag (for old times sake?):

<table id="PagingFooter" cellpadding="1" cellspacing="3" border="0" width="100%">
<tr><td colspan="3" align="center">
<h1 id="MoreLink"><a href="/listings-feature.htm">More homepage features...</a></h1>

I’d be interested to understand what has motivated this change.

No doubt there was a lot of cludgy old mark-up to clean-up, and it’s great to see this happening.  But when I see new HTML like this, I can’t help but wonder if the inmates are running the asylum:

<div class="Widget Corner TL"><!-- ie --></div>
<div class="Widget Corner TR"><!-- ie --></div>
<div class="Widget Corner BL"><!-- ie --></div>
<div class="Widget Corner BR"><!-- ie --></div>

Perhaps I’m just showing my age, but how is that an improvement?

On dancing chickens etc…

The first thing that many people would have noticed in the new design is the larger and now animated adverts dancing about in the header, sidebar and even in the body of the home page.

I’d be lying if I tried to defend these. The dancing chicken that filled this space on the first day wasn’t a great start, and the fact that there were some early bugs which meant that ads were in some cases overlapping with other content only made it worse.

Up until now Trade Me has been one of the few sites of any scale that refused to host animated adverts. There was a simple reason for this, as explained by Sam a few years ago when he said: “Users don’t like them, so we don’t have them”.

For similar reasons the ads used in the old design were smaller than the industry standard dimensions and had strict size requirements in order to ensure they were fast loading.

MG from Trade Me had this to say on an IAB forum just over a year ago:

“The best results we are seeing from flash placements within Trade Me are those with input fields for valid consumer benefit (mortgage calculator, airline departure/arrival locations, etc). Practical usage wins out over gratuitous animation. Movement doesn’t not [sic] necessarily lead to increased click-thoughs but can be relevant for brand positioning. A case of working out what you’re trying to achieve and developing a suitable ad & placement schedule to deliver to your objectives.

That said, from the industry results I’ve been party to, Trade Me’s [click thru rate] from Tab & Tower static gifs have out-performed their flash equivalents (from other publishers) on a [cost per impression] basis every time. But I don’t get to see the full campaign results from too many advertisers … is anyone prepared to present any campaign results that dispute this claim?”

I don’t think that users like slow and distracting ads any more now than they did back then, so it would seem brave to reverse that position.

It would be interesting to see the impact on what people actually do in response to these. Do they click on these annoying ads more? Does it change at all the way they engage with the site?

This is my newly formed general theory about animated or otherwise intrusive ads: the annoying-ness of the advertising on any given website is inversely proportional to revenue growth.

Perhaps the first derivative is the explanation in this case?

Something for everybody

They say a change is as good as a holiday. But there is also nothing worse than hearing about how great somebody else’s holiday was!

It seems to me that the biggest mis-step with this change is that all of the obvious benefits are internal.  There really isn’t anything in it at all for all of the people who use the site.

In fact, some small features have been removed, such as the ability to customise the sidebar links and the ability to search within a single region (actually you can still do this, it’s just one click further away).

I’m a fan of removing under-used features, to avoid a bloated application. But, in the absence of anything new to compensate, the vocal minority who did use those features which have been dropped will naturally be annoyed.

It’s a shame that there weren’t some new features included in this release, as a bit of Fire & Motion.

Fact vs Opinion

The team at Trade Me has changed a lot since the last major re-design in 2006.  I have a lot of respect for all of them, and I think it’s good to see them start to stamp their own personality on the site.

Will any of these changes make a material difference? I’m not sure. They will take a while to get used to, and hence give people something else to think about, other than using the site, until they do.  But, I’m sure most will manage and life will go on.

I’m sure that the team will be listening to all of the feedback, and keeping a close eye on the numbers.

The rest of us can but watch and throw stones from the sidelines :-)

What do you think of the changes? Are they growing on you yet?

15 thoughts on “What’s in it for me?”

  1. I can’t say that my first impression of the changes was very positive. I wouldn’t say that they’ve grown on me either, I’ve become numb to them more than anything else.

    For me personally I think that emotion is an important part of any design (talking here about both graphic and UX design). A great design produces a tailored positive emotional response in the user and a bad design produces either no emotion or (worse) a negative emotional response. These emotions contribute to both the users first impressions and their overall experience.

    When your switching from an existing design like TradeMe has then you also have to deal with the emotion that existing users feel for the old design and their reaction to loosing it. When a significant portion of your revenue comes from those existing users then your really should respect that and offer real value to those users along with any change you make. As you say, the benefits appear to be mostly to TradeMe themselves and not their users.

    Ignoring the fact that their was a previous design, my immediate response to the new design is that it’s not particularly attractive, it lacks character and is a little rough around the edges. That and annoying things like the fixed width design plus the obnoxious ads means that I’m not emotionally engaged in a positive way. Of course that’s my subjective opinion.

    Is it just me or does the new header design seem to have the same influences as the stuff.co.nz redesign?

    I’m a big fan of good semantic HTML, but it looks like TradeMe has caught a case of divitis and classitis… which imho is as bad as being a tableholic ;)

  2. I feel the new design if very clinical feeling, a little bit of colour in the right places could have made a world of difference.

    One thing i don’t feel was good, was the transition, they changed the site so much, that when I logged in the following day, I thought I was on the wrong site, and went and clicked on my bookmark again.

    It can’t be a great idea to alienate your user audience like that.

    I also use kiwibank which has had a new redesign and for a week or two before the transition they showed an image of what it will look like when they change, and it was an easy transition and felt comfortable when it happened. Obviously a bank is a last place you want people to feel insecure about being on the wrong site.

    kiwibank has also gone with a fixed width design, but they have retained some elements that go full width, and overall I am really impressed with the design and usability enhancements they have come up with

  3. RE: Animated ads

    When these started I installed an ad-blocking plugin to firefox. Now I use a different browser, and although I haven’t installed a new plugin – I don’t need to.

    Over 90% of the time I spend on the same sites which I essentially boycott if they have animated ads. I.e. I read BBC news rather than stuff.

    Unfortunately Trademe has a monopoly in NZ (I think – will now do further research).

    Animated ad’s effectiveness is inversely proportional to our ability to ignore them. Unfortunately their irritating-ness is proportional to their effectiveness…

    I think it comes down to a simple call – is our site essential enough that we can piss off our users and they will still come back. In the case of trademe, with a near monopoly – the answer is certainly yes.

    Site owners should love their users and thank them for making the site a reality by visiting it, rather than overly trying to monetise them _at users expense_

    Rant over – that feels better, animated ad’s bug me as much as that anti-piracy techno video at the start of DVDs these days

    1. Animated ad’s effectiveness is inversely proportional to our ability to ignore them. Unfortunately their irritating-ness is proportional to their effectiveness…

      Is that true? It seems so on the surface, but I’d be interested to see some numbers.

      PS what are these “DVDs” you talk of? ;-)

  4. Agree regarding colour comments. It’s too sparse.

    Gutted that they have animated ads. Cue ad blocker.

    What’s wrong with that HTML? Looks like good inheritance based CSS to me. The HTML comments are probably due to IE6 borking whitespace and are a necessary evil. The fact they’re empty otherwise would probably mean they’re for presentation, likely as corner boxes. We’ll get those with CSS3, so about 6 years time. In the mean time that’s a whole lot better than tables with rounded corners surely! Semantically, it makes sense, they mean nothing.

  5. It was a bit of a surprise when I checked decided to check out the Auckland apartment market listings the other night from London… I saw the new design and wondered how out of the loop I was; “how long has this been here?”.

    One thing I didn’t like was the de-emphasis of the Motoring/Property/Auction sections. The graphics for those used to be quite easy to scan for, but now they’re replaced by those generic coloured boxes, which seem a bit abstract and require a bit of cognitive effort (Don’t Make Me Think).

    Code wise there’s some curious bits: “” for instance. I can’t imagine what the ID’s used for?

    There’s still a lot of JS in the HEAD as well. I wonder how performance tuned it’s been.

    And XHTML? Bah! It’s all HTML5 now, baby. Must be time for a redesign… so behind the times. We’ve all just had the epiphany that HTML was as semantic as XHTML after all.

    1. Oops, some HTML was stripped out… I’ll see if I can get this to render right…

      <title id=”SiteTitle_Title”>

  6. @Scott

    My question is not whether the HTML is right or wrong (how do you tell that?) My question is whether it’s really an improvement over what came before.

    I understand the cost of making this change, I just don’t understand the benefits.

    Some common reasons that might be used to justify this sort of change (some of which I’ve used myself, to be fair):

    Speed (as a result of smaller page sizes and better caching) – How much smaller are the pages following the change?

    Accessibility – Was it tested before and after? What improvements, specifically?
    Easier to read – What difference does this make? Presumably it would be easier to make changes to the code if it’s easier to read. Any way to measure this?
    Separation of data and layout – Again, this sounds more like a means of achieving a benefit than a benefit in and of itself. What does separation afford? And can we really claim they are separate if the mark-up is full of redundant div tags and browser hacks
    Support on different devices (e.g. mobile phones) – Perhaps? Was this something that was broken with the old mark-up?
    Search Engine Optimisation – As I’ve previously mentioned here the most important visitor to your site is blind, so this seems a good reason. But, again, how do you measure this? Increased pages indexed by Google? Better click-thru rates?
    Future Proofing – See Adam’s comments re: HTML5
    Better browser support – Really? The code seems to be full of hacks to support the existing set of browsers that people currently use

    Are there other reasons I’m missing?

    Unless there is a clear reason, which can be measured afterwards, then my suspicion is raised.


    I’m pleased to hear that HTML5 is catching on. God forbid that developers would be interested in using a standard that is actually widely supported by browsers that normal people use! ;-)

  7. The biggest reasons for change are of course increased listings, sales and income.

    The success or otherwise of the redesign will be unknown to us outsiders (though if we see it revert we will have our suspicions).
    Internally it will quickly be reflected in the daily stats, the stats for each step in the core processes and, something we can see, in the number of listings at any one time.

    I have yet to have a good look at it. Perhaps the blandness is to blame.

  8. @Lance:

    Those are the key things, but I don’t think they are the motive. Of course they will be watching to make sure that none of those numbers tank, but I don’t expect that will happen.

    I think the motive was to setup the design to better accommodate future design changes (I don’t know exactly how you measure whether or not that was “achieved”). So, I guess we look forward to those?

  9. Some random related bits and pieces…

    From Hacker News:
    Do sites using tables for latyouts have an advantage over W3C compliant sites?

    Interesting debate, and sort of the same point that I was trying to make in my previous comment.

    From 456 Berea St:
    Resolution vs. Browser Size vs. Fixed or Adaptive Width

    Check out some of the articles linked here, they all point out that the key thing is not screen size (as reported by most analytics tools( but browser window size – i.e. the width of the actual area where pages are rendered (which seems to be mostly speculation). I know I for one don’t have my browser maximised on the large screen I use.

  10. @Rowan
    Somewhat amusing that you would question the usefulness of tableless layout and then link to 456 Berea Steet… Johansson would most definitely disagree you.

    i.e. Failed redesigns: Use web standards or don’t bother redesigning ;)

    I like the idea that if you’re going to do it, do it right. But then I am a perfectionist, for all the good and bad that does me!

    And I think producing great html/css/js is only possible if all your developers know how to produce great html/css/js (i.e. they have to care), and I get the impression that it’s still pretty hard to hire/train that into a team (or to justify doing so). Not that I’ve tried.

    I like the way you think :) On the bizarre id’s… I wouldn’t be surprised if they were the spawn of ASP.NET. But then I haven’t worked with ASP.NET for a few years, maybe that sort of thing isn’t an issue anymore?

  11. Thanks for the reply Rowan. I had taken the meaning from your comment about the inmates running the asylum that you thought the HTML example you gave was crazy.

    We can only speculate at the motivations and all of yours are along the lines of what I would’ve asked. It’d be interesting to have stats for page size pre and post change. CSS based layout is often a smaller page size but a much larger stylesheet size. However as the stylesheet is loaded less, it’s a better deal in total. When done properly, the flexibility of CSS in terms of layout is excellent as you’d well know.

    To say I’m surprised at the fixed width layout is an understatement but perhaps there’s some jiggery pokery going on in the background that’ll help future adjustments to this.

    But haven’t we got to a point in screen sizes now where maximisinig is virtually worthless? Apple has been aware of this for a long time but PC users still seem to love maximising, me included. At what point does screen resolution actually hinder your website layout. 1024? 1280, 1600, 2000? I’m running 2×19″ monitors and everything still feels okay. The next monitor I’d likely purchase would be around 23-24″. Would I really want a site then stretching that full width? I don’t have the answer but would guess no. Something for browser manufacturers to be thinking about too.

    No doubt as Lance concludes, the motivation was for better income. However, don’t let job satisfaction be excluded from your list of criteria as the reason for the HTML change. If you get the best HTML’ers in the country in 2009 and tell them they have to code in tables they’re not likely to stick around.

    As a side note your email notification doesn’t seem to be working.

    1. I’ve worked on a couple of CSS-ification projects. The reduction in the page size is never as much as you would expect (especially when zipped). But, yes, it would be interesting to see what difference these design changes made in this case. Does anybody have any numbers on this?

      I don’t think this change was motivated by the key numbers that Lance mentioned – although he is right that they will be watching these closely to ensure they are aware of any negative side-effects. I think this was about putting a foundation in place for future changes. We’ll all have to wait for these to start to show up over the coming months.

      Also, I agree that job satisfaction amongst the dev + design teams is a good criteria. This was certainly a big part of the motivation behind the migration to .NET that I have written about here previously, and wouldn’t be surprised if that was again the case with these changes.

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