Embracing Simplicity – Why Craigslist’s Text Only Design is So Effective

Every website design tutorial or advice column tells you the same thing: the visual component is one of the most important there is. The images you use, the color scheme, and general aesthetic can make or break your site within just a few seconds of the user’s arrival. If your site doesn’t impress them visually, they’re likely to click away and move on to the next site instead, without a second thought.

But if that’s the case, then how do you explain Craigslist? It’s just a bunch of blue links and black text against a white background. There are no images or photos unless someone chooses to upload their own along with their ad listing. It was founded in 1995, and their aesthetic hasn’t changed since then. It’s incredibly simplistic by today’s standards, and some would even call it ugly. But it works for them! Craigslist thrives in over 700 cities and 70 countries and made nearly $700 million in revenue in 2016. Here are a few reasons whyCraigslist’s simple, text-only design is so effective for them.

It’s Simple

Craigslist has one of the most straightforward designs you can imagine. Even with limited technological understanding, a user can find exactly what they’re looking for quickly and easily. The things you can find there are divided up into broad categories, from housing to jobs to services and more.

Then under each of those categories is a list of the specific things you can find—e.g. a sublet or a vacation rental, a job in accounting or in education, or services in legal or in real estate. Once you click what you’re looking for, you’re given all the listings for that category, starting with the most recent, and you can browse to see what best fits what you’re looking for.

The steps are easy and intuitive, which makes them appealing when you’re looking for something. You don’t need a tutorial and you don’t need to click around the entire site before you find what you want. If it’s there, you’ll find it.

It’s Constant

Let’s conduct an experiment. Think of some of your favorite websites, which you use often. Then visit the Wayback Machine at archive.org. Enter in that site’s URL and view a snapshot of it from a few years ago. Chances are, the site’s aesthetic, and likely its entire functionality, was completely different then than it was now. Sites like Facebook and Twitter are famous for making major changes to their user interface every few years. Everyone gets used to it after a while, but not before lots of public complaining about how they preferred it the way things used to be.

But through the years, Craigslist’s design has remained exactly the same. It’s added and subtracted some categories in that time, but the overall setup remains unchanged. You never have to get used to a new arrangement. You never have to experience the frustration of looking for your particular category on the bottom left-hand corner of the screen, only to find that it’s now at the top right instead—or the frustration of continuing to go to the bottom left out of habit for the next few weeks before you finally get used to the change. It’s familiar and reliable, and that’s important to users.

Should you adopt Craigslist’s simple, text-only design for your own website? Not necessarily. Aesthetics are still important, and the stark, stripped-down look doesn’t suit everyone. But if you look at the principles they’ve implemented in terms of form and function, and what they’ve been able to achieve using them, there’s likely a lot you can learn from the Craigslist model of website design.

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