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?

Visualise your audience

I love the buzz of a big crowd.  It’s exciting to soak up the atmosphere created when lots of people are all in the same space at the same time.

If you’re lucky enough to be the band, or sports team or speaker who is the focus of the crowds attention, then that is quite powerful.

(Or terrifying, I suppose, depending on their mood!)

If you design or develop software it’s much harder to get feedback like this.

But, it’s still useful to think of crowds to help you visualise the audience of people who are using what you’re building.

This was the idea behind the photo I use in the header this site.

Another from the same shoot is below, for those of you reading via my feed:

Idealog Stadium

These come from a 2006 article about Trade Me in Idealog, and were taken at the Westpac Stadium in Wellington on a wet and wild day (hence the slightly damp windswept look and the Icebreaker jacket).

The stadium seats about 35,000 people when it’s full.  At the time there were about that many people online at once every evening on Trade Me.

(As I type there are over 80,000 online, showing how much it has continued to grow since then!)

When you think of that many people all in one space together, and the noise and activity they generate, it changes the way you think about the people using your site.

One of the things that software developers do all the time is dismiss a percentage of their audience as unimportant for one reason or another, without thinking of them as a distinct group of people.

If you don’t think you need to worry about people stuck using IE6 (for whatever reason) or a dial-up connection, or people who struggle to read small fonts, or people who are colour blind (or completely blind), or people who don’t know how to use a command line, or people who are still nervous (paranoid or otherwise) about entering their credit card details into a website, or people who want help from a real person, or people who use Firefox on a Mac … because on a percentage basis they are not that many … calculate just how big that group is (take your unique visitor count and multiply by the percentage, however small), and then imagine standing up in front of that group and telling them to their face that they don’t matter to you.

If you don’t think it’s a big deal for your site to be broken or off line while you make changes … think of all of the people who happen to be visiting at that point and imagine what it would feel like to have them all in the room with you while you flick the switch.  No matter how small the number it would probably feel like a lot of people.  And, you might be motivated to get the site back up more quickly if they were all standing behind you impatiently looking over your shoulder.

You can use the same technique to help put other numbers in perspective.

It’s amazing the difference it makes when you start thinking of your metrics as real people.

For example…

  • 2 people = your mum and dad!
  • 5 people = a car full
  • 15 people = a rugby team
  • 30 people = a school class
  • 100 people = a bus full
  • 120 people = a parliament full of MPs (actually 122, to be precise)
  • 380 people = all of the passengers on an Air NZ 747-400
  • 550 people = the audience at Webstock earlier this year
  • 1,500 people = capacity of the Aotea Centre in Auckland
  • 2,500 people = all of the students at Auckland Grammar school
  • 6,000 people = capacity of the TSB Arena in Wellington
  • 10,000 people = population of Gore :-)
  • 12,000 people = capacity of the Vector Arena in Auckland
  • 18,000 people = all of the students at Otago University
  • 20,000 people = population of Levin
  • 25,000 people = the crowd at Augusta National each day this week
  • 35,000 people = capacity of Westpac Stadium in Wellington
  • 60,000 people = capacity of Eden Park in Auckland, post-renovations
  • 100,000 people = capacity of MCG in Australia (also, incidentally, approx. the number of people who voted for NZ First at the last election)
  • 250,000 people = capacity of St Peter’s Square in Rome
  • 475,000 people = population of greater Wellington region
  • Etc, etc.

Help me out with some more examples…

In the beginning…

This month it is 10 years since Trade Me was launched.

Last night there was a party for staff to celebrate the milestone.

As part of this they kindly invited a few of us who were there in the beginning to tell some stories about how we got involved and about the early days of working on the site.

Here is my part of that (the extended director’s-cut edition) …

In 1999 I was working as an IT consultant in Sydney and really wanted to move back to Wellington.

In those days to find a good flat you needed to get up really early on a Wednesday or Saturday and buy a paper and hit the phones – and by lunch time normally all of the good ones had been taken.

So, that obviously wasn’t very convenient for me over in Australia.

This was also the middle of the dot-com bubble, and I had this nagging fear that I was missing out on something, and was really keen to get my hands dirty and try to build my own website.

So, I put those two things together and came up with the idea for Flathunt.

That was all good. 

The first version of the site was a bit rubbish, but I was proud of it.

Then, in a moment of madness, I decided to quit my job and work on Flathunt full-time.

I had an exit interview with the senior partner at the firm I was working at, and in as many words he told me that he thought I was throwing my career away.

In a way you could say he was right, because since then I’ve never worn a suit and tie again!

Anyway, I just put my head down and tried to make Flathunt as good as I could make it.

I called every property manager and real estate agent I could find, and asked them to list on the site.

And, surprisingly a few of them said “yes” and the site slowly started growing.

Soon after it launched, we actually found a flat for ourselves through the site – it was listed at 2pm and we went and saw it at 4pm and signed the lease that evening.  Which was great, except that our new landlord straight away took the listing down, and at that stage I was a bit desperate for all of the listings I could get.  So, that was a bit annoying!

After about 3 months my girlfriend (now my lovely wife) got a bit sick of paying all of the bills.

Flathunt was making enough to cover costs, but not enough to pay me a salary, so I had to go out and find some paid work.

Around that time I had lunch with Sam, who was an old friend from school, and with Phil McCaw who along with his colleagues from AMR had just invested, and they told me what they were doing with Trade Me. 

I’d seen the “Only Turkeys Pay For Classifieds” billboard. 

I thought it sounded exciting.

So we did a deal around Flathunt and they hired me as a developer.

I became the first employee who wasn’t a Morgan, and got to work.

And, there was no shortage of things to do.

Within the first year we completely redesigned the site: we put in place a new design – coming up with the yellow sidebar and tabs and the “Kevin the Kiwi” logo etc which are still more-or-less in place today, we introduced charging, and usernames (rather than just showing everybody’s email address on the site) and built photo uploading, and autobidding, and the first incarnation of text bidding (which nobody really used apart from us)… and a whole bunch of other stuff.

It’s hard to imagine today that the site would have worked at all without all of those things, but somehow it did.

We even built a Japanese version of SafeTrader, of all things, but that’s a story for another day.

We were just making it up as we went.

Sometimes we’d have an idea while we were out at lunch and rush back and try and build it and deploy it before we went home.  It was incredible that the site didn’t break a lot more than it did.

All the while the business was growing at a ridiculous rate.

But we were still impatient.

One day Sam decided to try and get on Fair Go … as you do.  So he called the producers and said “I really want you to come and film a story about Trade Me”.  They didn’t really know what to say, I don’t think, because the people they were used to dealing with would normally try and lock the doors or punch the cameraman.

But they came in anyway and filmed some interviews.

Then we panicked.

We were not really prepared for the sort of traffic that a top-rating prime time television show might generate.  I think the site was running on a single server at that point.  So we quickly rushed out and hired a bigger server and then braced ourselves.

We invited some family and friends into the office the evening it aired for some drinks, and we setup a projector showing the number of people online.

And, if I’m correct, that was the first time we ever had more than 1000 people on the site at once, which was an exciting milestone.

Anyway, it was a crazy time.

I’ve never worked so hard or had so much fun. 

We got to experience a business growing at an astonishing rate, although what we didn’t realise at the time was that this was just the beginning.

It was a privilege to be part of it.


Trade Me Home Page Retrospective

(click for full-size screen shots)











The Key To Happiness

The key to happiness is apparently simple: low expectations and unsuccessful friends.

If you believe that then I should be a miserable wreck. I have neither!  Good thing happiness is over-rated. :-)

Here is an article by Peter Griffin from the July/August issue of Idealog about the multi-talented Nigel Stanford, possibly the most successful person you’ve never heard of, and one of my old friends who continues to motivate me to do more:

The Road To Rubber Monkey

The best quote:
“It sounds terrible but the gift I have is the ability to think like a stupid person.”

How’s the weather?

The tenth most visited NZ site in July with over 500,000 unique browsers…


Yup, that about sums it up doesn’t it!

Trade Me still dominates, with 2.8 million unique browsers and over 1 billion page impressions.  That’s 64% of all recorded domestic page views!  And they’re still hiring.

Meanwhile, according to latest figures there are now 1.5 million internet “subscribers” in New Zealand.  Of these 59% are broadband users (I’m not sure what definition of broadband is used here, but we’ll take it as meaning not-dial-up).  

So, while that has improved a lot in the last year (see my previous post: Broadband usage still under 50% from March 2007), that’s still a lot of dial-up users out there.

I wonder if iPhone users are counted as subscribers yet?

Usage stats from Neilsen Online, subscriber numbers from Statistics New Zealand via NZ Herald

Push The Button

Photo: http://flickr.com/photos/unseelie/766346338/

How many steps does it take to get a change live on your website?

Ideally it should be a one click process.

Otherwise, when the pressure is on (i.e. when there is a bug on the site that you quickly need to fix) you’re sure to forget some critical step and make an even bigger hole for yourself.

What we called “the deployment process” changed a lot during my time at Trade Me.

In the very early days we just copied ASP scripts directly onto the production server. We only got away with this because there were not many people writing code and there were not many people using the site.

Later, as we moved to having multiple web servers which each required a copy of the code, we created a simple Windows application which copied the files from our local directory onto each of the web servers and would also execute selected SQL scripts against the production database. This was much better, but still relied on the developer doing the push to have the correct files on their local machine.

As the site got bigger there were some new complications. For a start there were more people involved. The teams responsible for testing and for maintaining the database and servers got increasingly nervous about developers having the ability to push code at any time. The code base got bigger, making it more difficult to keep in sync. The number of people using the site increased massively, making it less and less practical to just put code changes multiple times during the day. And, we also moved to using ASP.NET, which added the complication of having a build step in the process.

To address some of these issues we developed a new tool we called the “Release Manager” which hooked into source control and allowed us to package up changes so that they could be pushed to test or to production with one click (using simple NAnt scripts under the covers). This removed a lot of the complexity and stress from the process.

I’m sure it has continued to evolve since I left – if anybody from Trade Me is reading it would be interesting to hear about how you do it now.

Towards the end of my time there the test team, who had final sign-off on each release (twice per day at that point), got into the habit of queuing up ‘Push The Button’ by the Sugarbabes on the MP3 player when they were ready for changes to be deployed to production. Every time I hear that song now my pulse increases slightly at the prospect of some site changes going live!

I always thought it would be fun to wire up a proper red button to trigger the deployment, but never got the time …

If you’re interested, I wrote a little more about the tools and processes we used (as at April ’07) here:

Questions from Tim Haines, Part II

How do you manage deployment?

Trade Me Changes

There have been some interesting changes on Trade Me over the last week.

The “cards” used to display lists of items for sale have had a design upgrade, with bigger fonts and bigger photos.

These two simple things have resulted in good improvements in the past, so the team at Trade Me will be hopeful that the same will be true this time.

I think they are a nice evolution and look great!

I especially like the new photo viewer in Trade Me Property, which means you can now view all of the photos for a listing without having to first click into the listing itself. This makes it much quicker to browse.

But, as always opinion is divided on the message boards.

Trade Me will be amused by the comments, but mostly interested in the numbers. They will probably already know if these changes have had a positive or negative impact on page views, bids and length of time spent on the site. In the past all three of these metrics have been improved just by increasing thumb nail image sizes. In time they will be able to tell if it has resulted in more sales. If you’re keen you can follow this yourself using the published sell-thru rates (the percentage of items listed that actually sell).

Meanwhile, the message boarders have moved on to complaining about postage prices.


Disclaimer: I no longer work at Trade Me or have a financial interest – I’m just an interested observer like the rest of you.