Terribly successful

Imagine a web application as it should appear in 2010.

Now lower your expectations in absolutely every way.

Design? Absolutely terrible. We’re talking default and mixed fonts, no thought given to typography, spacing. Bad 1995 animated GIFs scattered around.  Terrible Photoshop, or more likely MS Paint skills – that kind of gratuitous dropshadowbeveladdsomesunglareandanotherlayer thing you do when you’re first fiddling with image editing programs: no subtlety, no restraint, no style.

Lower your expectations a bit more. The UI is awful – any sense of navigational place has been whittled away not just by the design but by the FULL ON nature of the interface, the ads, the lack of anything consistent.

Actually, the web interface is less important than it could or should be: really, all the action happens instead in your email inbox. By default, you get 550 or so emails from this site every week. That’s 80, every single day.

What else? Oh, no tagging, no taxonomy, no (meaningful) search, no API, no feeds. No proper database of past posts, actually…

Sounds terrible, right? Sounds like hell on a stick? Sounds like the kind of site you’d laugh at, one you’d definitely not get involved with? In fact, maybe I’m making it up as a kind of case study of how not to do the web, right?


This is Bath Freegle. And the thing that utterly confounds anyone who looks at it (apart from the fact it flies in the face of everything we believe in as web people) is this: it is utterly, totally and unbelievably successful. Not just “not bad” successful, but in-your-face “literally, you’ll have people picking your stuff up within minutes of posting it” successful.

There’s a number of reasons why this works, of course (ranging from “people understand email” to “hey, free stuff!”). A passionate audience of more than 11,000 members helps. Free stuff certainly helps. Fulfilling genuine human needs helps (I need to get rid of shit, and can’t be bothered to sell it on eBay: you fancy said shit. Let’s deal).

Nonetheless, this makes us web types twitch for two main reasons: 1) it flies in the face of most of the things we believe in, and 2) it could / should be so, so much better.

So can we learn anything from this (apart from the fact that humans will do nearly anything for free stuff)? Maybe it’s something about going where the people are. Maybe it’s about simplicity. Maybe it’s about priorities, and how we should spend more time working with users to understand what makes them tick. Maybe it’s about all of the above.

Maybe. But that doesn’t make it any easier to swallow…

3 thoughts on “Terribly successful”

  1. I assume this site is similar to Freecycle, in which case I would agree, if you put free stuff on a website then people will come no matter how rubbish it looks aesthetically.

    I bet if they made this in some way commercial no-one would use the site, going elsewhere to another site offering free stuff!

  2. Thanks for commenting.

    It is indeed – it was originally Freecycle but for some reason they separated off to form Freegle.

    It’s frustrating, though: one of the things that is irritating about something this bad working really well is no-one will put any time in to improve it…

  3. There’s a slightly more fun version of this called Streetbank (www.streetbank.com) which involves swapping and trading (disclosure: it’s run by a friend of mine). The UI is a completely different approach, and it’s getting local traction in West London.

    Craigslist must be the number one example of the no-UI UI working really well.

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