Popular does not equal Usable

Aesthetics Aside

Often, in discussion of usability, the argument is made that something doesn’t need to be aesthetically attractive to be usable. Since usability is one element of user experience, it can narrowly be said that usability is a measure of “function” not form. Almost invariably, Craigslist is cited as an example of a site that is ugly but usable. But, is Craigslist usable?

What is Usability?

Let’s set the discussion of aesthetics aside for now. Is Craigslist actually usable? Wait, let’s rephrase, does the site have “high usability.” I rephrased it because often, people consider “usable” as “passable.” Let’s revisit the definition of usability:

Usability is defined by 5 quality components:

  • Learnability: How easy is it for users to accomplish basic tasks the first time they encounter the design?
  • Efficiency: Once users have learned the design, how quickly can they perform tasks?
  • Memorability: When users return to the design after a period of not using it, how easily can they reestablish proficiency?
  • Errors: How many errors do users make, how severe are these errors, and how easily can they recover from the errors?
  • Satisfaction: How pleasant is it to use the design?

Jakob Nielsen expands on this with:

  • Definition of Utility = whether it provides the features you need.
  • Definition of Usability = how easy & pleasant these features are to use.
  • Definition of Useful = usability + utility.

These are the experts, so let’s see how craigslist stacks up.

Craigslist Defenders

You don’t have to look far to find articles like, “Why Craigslist Has A Near Perfect Design…For Craigslist,” or paragraphs in books like, Visual Usability: Principles and Practices for Designing Digital Applications. There are many who claim that Craigslist is “usable,” but in reality, they mean “passable.” Bradley says:

I think it’s safe to say there are two main reasons anyone interacts with Craigslist.

  • To post an ad
  • To find ads others have posted

And, because you can do these two things, it must be “usable.” But, does that meet the definition of usability above? No, it matches the definition of “utility”, not usable or useful. In fact, there are lots of people that try to suggest a craigslist redesign focused on usability (and in the comments, the Craigslist defenders surface).

Craigslist Problems

Unfortunately, a lot of Craigslist’s problems boils down to people. Because the people contribute to the usability and overall experience, it shouldn’t be ignored in a discussion like this, but let’s do just that, ignore it for now. Let’s, instead, focus on issues of utility.

  • It’s actually difficult to get an ad on Craigslist with all of the confirmation, verification and moderation.
  • Finding ads can be difficult because of the deep taxonomy and “lumping” of ads together.
  • Craigslist has a high signal-to-noise ratio.
  • First time users have to learn a lot about the culture and site to successfully use the site. Often the lessons learned aren’t applicable a year later, requiring re-learning the culture and site.
  • Looking for an apartment? It’d be good to see listings on a map right? Can’t do it.
  • Looking for something and having trouble? No worries, you can use complex boolean operators to get the search working right.
  • Would you like to find a good ad that isn’t a scam or spam? Have fun. The site gives you no tools (other than the flawed moderation) to help you weed out the scam and spam.

The debate of Craigslist usability is a long and sordid tale. While it’s easy to find people defending Craigslist, it’s just as easy to find people complaining about it and the usability issues they encounter. Princeton, of all schools, has a usability assignment to analyze the deficiencies in Craigslist. It’s a very tough argument to make that “Craigslist has high usability.” And, for quite some time, Craigslist has been talking about improving usability.

Which brings me to my point.

Popular != Usable

Craigslist is popular. There’s no denying it. But, just because something is popular, doesn’t make it good. In the case of Web sites and software, popularity doesn’t prove that it’s usable. There are a large number of variables and factors that go into popularity. Usability is only one of those factors. It’s problematic to assume that because a thing is popular, it must be “highly usable.” According to the definitions, it’s likely that is it just “passable” and has sufficient “utility.”

So, what’s your take? What other products are highly popular but not “highly usable?”