Craig Newmark prides himself on supporting meaningful ways to “contribute to the common goods” and works that “strengthen American democracy” (Newmark, 2017). These values probably also explain why Craigslist remains free for most people (Peters, 2020), and that the interface remains its simplicity from years ago. Because of Craigslsit’s interesting history and unique look, I became interested in this research question:

Can people use the site well despite the seemingly outdated interface?

Part 1: Narrowing Down the Tasks

Why Apartment Hunting

Craigslist offers a variety of services that differ drastically in terms of functionalities (e.g. posting on a forum and having back-and-forth conversations vs. posting something for sale and waiting for people to reach out), target audience (e.g. people looking for a job vs. people looking for an apartment), and interface (e.g. browsing vs. signing up for an account). To make sure that I can focus on one concrete aspect of Craigslist and provide detailed recommendations after the test, I decided to narrow down the topic to apartment hunting. More specifically, I was interested in the filtering and searching functions. Since Craigslist is known for its abundance of information, filtering and searching are crucial in helping users obtain the information they care about.

Designing the Tasks

Based on personal experience of doing apartment hunting several times in the past few years, I was able to not only come up with a set of filtering and searching subtasks, but also make sure each of the subtasks stems from real-life scenarios. For example, the subtask of “finding an apartment that’s within 2 miles of Metcalf building” corresponds to my experience of finding a place that was close enough to my office. The subtask of “finding an apartment that has either a balcony or a backyard” comes from my previous roommate who was a plant lover. The subtask for “finding an apartment that’s not on the first or ground floor” is based on my friend’s preference for being away from the noisy streets. These experiences helped ensure that the tasks can mimic the actual use case of the website.

Finding Target Audience

I also had no trouble finding participants who were the target audience of Craigslist’s apartment hunting service: just reached out to my friends, all young adults who have done or will be doing apartment hunting in the future.

Part 2: Usability Test

Think-aloud interviews were conducted with a total of 6 participants. The interview was composed of 4 steps: background questions, apartment hunting tasks, assessment of the search tips, and reflection. All the interviews were done over Zoom. The session was recorded and analyzed afterwards.

Step 1: background questions

  1. Have you used Craigslist before? How does Craigslist benefit you?
  2. What’s your impression of Craigslist?
  3. How do you go about finding an apartment to rent?
  4. Have you done apartment hunting online before? If so, which platform did you use? How did you like it? How did these platforms benefit you? What filters do you usually use? Are there any filters you wish were there?
  5. Do you have any concerns about using Craigslist to find apartments?

Finding Summary

  • All the 6 participants have heard of Craigslist before. Nobody considered themselves a regular user, but 5 reported occasional usage in the past.
  • When asked about their impression of Craigslist, all 5 participants who have used it before mentioned trust issues, and used the words “sketchy”, “scam” and “skeptical” to describe their impression.
  • 4 participants found the UI outdated. 1 participant explained that “if a website doesn’t put enough effort into the UI design, how much would they help me if things go wrong?”
  • When asked about the other online platforms they’ve used for apartment hunting, 3 participants mentioned, and 4 mentioned Zillow. And their reasons for liking these competitors better than Craigslist still came down to trust: “on Zillow I’m able to contact people via the platform and not give out my personal information.”

Step 2: apartment hunting tasks

Here is the URL that I want you to open:
You will be ask to find apartments that fit the scenario. And remember that you can use both the filter and the search function.

Scenario 1

  1. 2 or 3 bedrooms
  2. within 2 miles of the MetCalf building
  3. on-site parking
  4. not on the first or ground level

Scenario 2

  1. under $3000
  2. at least 1000 sqft
  3. unfurnished

Scenario 3

  1. in-unit laundry
  2. allow cats
  3. furnished
  4. has a backyard or balcony

More questions after the scenarios:

  1. Now could you please scroll and walk me through the filters on the left, are there terms that you are unsure about or don’t understand?
  2. What do you think of the ordering of these filters? What order would you put them in?
  3. What other things would you like to be able to filter for? What filters would you add to this?

Finding Summary

  • All the participants ran into problems with the “2 miles within the Metcalf building” and “unfurnished” subtasks.
  • The participants found the mapping interface confusing and hard to use, and were annoyed by the lack of precise control.
  • Not everyone thought about using search for "unfurnished". This could be a potential area of improvement in providing help about when to use preset filters vs. when to use search.

Step 3: assessment of the search tips

  1. There's an advanced search tips for you to customize your filter. Can you find the tips?
  2. After looking at the advanced search tips, what do you think of its content? How do the examples benefit you?
  3. What would you have done differently in the scenarios now that you’ve learned these tips?
  4. What tutorial or help should be here? How could Craigslist help you learn about these tips better?

Finding Summary

  • Only 3 participants found the search tips without hints.
  • 5 participants commented on how the tips reminded them of their computer science and math knowledge.

Step 4: reflection

  1. On a scale from 1-5, how difficult was it to use Craigslist for apartment searching? (1 being very easy and 5 being very difficult)
  2. On a scale from 1-5, how difficult was it to search for specific filters (i.e., unfurnished, allows cats, etc.) in each scenario? (1 being very easy and 5 being very difficult)
  3. Were you able to find all of the necessary criteria for Scenario 1? (yes or no)
  4. Were you able to find all of the necessary criteria for Scenario 2? (yes or no)
  5. Were you able to find all of the necessary criteria for Scenario 3? (yes or no)
  6. On a scale from 1-5, how likely are you to use Craigslist to find apartments in the future? (1 being very likely and 5 being very unlikely)
  7. On a scale from 1-5, how likely are you recommend Craigslist to a peer? (1 being very likely and 5 being very unlikely)
  8. Could you say more about your difficulties in each filter scenario?
  9. Why would you use or not use Craigslist?
  10. Why would you recommend or not recommend?
  11. If you could wave a magic wand, what would you do to improve Craigslist? How would that benefit you?

Finding Summary

  • The participants found Craiglist not too hard to use (average is 2.5 out of 5), and the filters not too hard to find (average is 2.67).
  • The participants were unlikely to use Craigslist (average is 4 when 5 is very unlikely), and similarly unlikely to recommend to a friend (average is 3.8).
  • The most complained issues include finding auto-refresh inconsistent and annoying, couldn't find the reset button, and finding the top bar confusing.

Part 3: Proposed Improvement

Redesign the Map Filter

From the background questions, I learned that the location of housing is very important. All 5 participants who had done apartment hunting before mentioned location as a filter that they’d usually use. Therefore, it’s crucial to change the current map interface into something less confusing and more usable. Since no one found the nearby button useful and several reported it confusing, and its functionality overlaps with setting the radius through the map, I decided to take it out. According to Nielsen’s flexibility and efficiency heuristic (Laubheimer, 2020), it’s important to provide users with multiple methods to accomplish the same task. Therefore, I changed the search box from only allowing zip codes to allowing addresses as well.

Redesign the Filter Buttons

When looking at the current furnished button, it’s easy to tell what it means when the check box is selected: you want all the listings that are furnished. But an unchecked box is ambiguous: does it mean the listings are unfurnished, or the filters haven’t been applied and you get a mix of furnished and unfurnished listings? According to Norman’s design principle of affordance (Norman, 2013) , the button itself should present enough visual clues on how it should be used. A redesign of the furnished button allows the user to toggle between three states, and avoid ambiguity. Other filter buttons can benefit from a similar redesign, such as pets, smoking, and air conditioning.

Offer Better Explanations and Instructions

When we ask the participants to find the filter terms that they weren’t sure about, we got a long list. And there is nowhere on the Craigslist website that provides a glossary or explanation for these terms. This could be fixed by providing a mouseover text.

Clearer Feedback at the Top Bar

There are some filters presented at the top bar. It seems to serve as a shortcut to some of the popular filters, and should bring convenience to users. However, the participants either didn’t notice or use the top bar or complained about it. One participant noticed that the URLs were different when clicked on the “furnished” filter from the left than when clicked on “furnished” from the top bar, and got very confused. Another participant saw the top bar as a new set of filters compared to the ones on the left, and got confused as well: “it’s so weird that the furnished button is here”. Therefore, my recommendation for the top bar is to remove it completely, to avoid confusion.

Currently the website doesn’t have a very consistent way to provide feedback for filter applications. Some filters would trigger auto-refresh the moment the box is checked, while others wouldn’t apply until the “update search” button is clicked. Once the page is refreshed, it’s also hard to tell which filters have been applied, and the user had to look through all the filters to check. According to Norman’s feedback design principle (Norman, 2013), users must receive clear feedback after every action they performed to know whether the action was successful or not. Therefore, I propose to remove the auto-refresh function, and only update the page after the user clicks on the “update search” button. I also recommend adding closable tags on the top of the page to show which filters have been applied, and make them in sync with the filters on the left, so the user could remove a filter by either closing a tag or unchecking a filter box.