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The Case for “Bad” Design

Craigslist has resisted the march of time, and for good reason

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

During a visit to New York in March, Craig Newmark sat down at The Core Club — a ritzy Upper East Side club known for its elite clientele — for a morning chat hosted by pet lifestyle entrepreneur Wendy Diamond and her dog, Baby Hope Diamond. After discussing his rise to success as the founder of Craigslist, his birding hobby, and his Sunday school education, an audience member asked a question that has plagued many entrepreneurs who would like to mimic his success: How can a website like yours be so outdated, yet so high-impact?

“Do something simple and useful,” Newmark, in his signature newsboy cap, replied. “Spend your resources on stuff that people really want and need. Twenty years ago, I had in mind fancy user interface stuff. Talked to people, they said, ‘Don’t do that, keep it simple and fast and get to the point.’ I’m afraid my own personal attitudes reflect that. Especially when I’m listening to people speak, I want folks to get to the point fast and then stop. And that’s a good design philosophy.”

Newmark has found success by following that way of thinking, an everyman’s version of the mantras spouted by Apple designer Jony Ive. The straightforward website Newmark founded in 1995 remains mostly uninfluenced by the modern internet. It is also highly profitable, raking in an estimated $690 million in revenue last year. Forbes gauges the company’s value at around $3 billion — a significant number for an operation that employs around 50 people, incurs few major expenses aside from legal fees and server costs, and decidedly has no moonshot department.

For plenty of reasons, Craigslist’s sustained success on nothing more than a basic HTML website has been particularly maddening to Silicon Valley. A recent Forbes feature on startups looking to disrupt online classifieds described Craigslist as “the cockroach of the internet,” and argued that “in the technology industry, where survival depends on constant innovation, conventional wisdom suggests Craigslist should have vanished long ago.” That logic has encouraged app-based startups like OfferUp, Letgo, and even monoliths like Facebook, to take aim at the online listserv market, what they see as an outdated mess of hyperlinks that refuses to acclimate to the smartphone, and has done little to verify its buyers and sellers as a safety precaution. Last June, the high-profile venture capitalist Mary Meeker even gave a hat-tip to OfferUp’s potential in her annual Internet Trends report, noting that its users spend 25 minutes a day browsing the app as if it were Snapchat or Instagram.

Maybe it’s inevitable that these apps will prevail in the future, but, at the very least, Craigslist’s hold on the market complicates the tech industry’s long-held belief that companies must “innovate or die.” The inconvenient counterpoint being that, even on the internet, humans are deeply habitual. Despite the constant flux of updates thrown our way, there is a significant part of the population that remains unimpressed by Silicon Valley’s manic attempts to continually redesign our online interfaces. Evidence of this is littered all over the internet: Despite its many problems, Yahoo remains the default desktop homepage for many, a fact that has kept the company flush in online traffic even as its numerous attempts at new social apps have floundered. Even with its graphic-less list format, Reddit commands a loyal enough following that the company felt compelled to throw an app into the mix only last year. Just two years ago, AOL’s quarterly earnings revealed that nearly 2 million people were still paying for their dial-up (which I am reminded of every morning as I hear the “You Got Mail” greeting echo from my downstairs neighbor’s apartment). Maybe some of that boils down to inertia, but there’s something to be said about respecting an internet user’s desire to complete a task quickly, to resist the many strategies modern websites employ to keep a person’s attention just a little bit longer. Craigslist’s web 2.0 design and refusal to force social media onto its users makes it hassle-free, comforting, and inclusive. It is the website equivalent of going to your local drug store and knowing exactly where the toilet paper is. It’s disorienting when the location of their toilet paper arbitrarily changes — why overthink a mindless, insignificant chore?

And in the case of Craigslist, relentless simplicity aides its most lasting business feature: the ability to load a site with an eclectic mix of items people want to buy or sell. Not all of life’s menial tasks require Ive levels of design analysis or Zuckerberg-esque social integration. Craigslist’s resilience proves there’s still a place on the internet for a mainstay site that wants nothing more than to fulfill a mundane life function, and get paid a small fee in exchange. It’s an argument for the static online service, the internet company whose aesthetic and business model fit its purpose and — in Newmark’s words — a website that can “get to the point fast and then stop.”