Interesting used car browsing trends

Last year I used some data analysis techniques to determine that the Craigslist’s Cars and Trucks category tended to have more postings than other popular categories, such as furniture and electronics. Part of the reason relates to aggressive car dealers, as well as the huge inventory of used cars among ordinary sellers.

More recently, I was able to dig into my company’s own app usage data, to determine what buyers were looking at. One of the most surprising findings was most people use the app for browsing and buying cars on Craigslist.

A couple things to keep in mind with this data:

  • It’s from a relatively small set of early adopters. The app launched in late April, and six weeks later around 2/3 of all descriptions viewed were in the cars & trucks category. In the weeks that followed, the percentage dropped to about 55%.
  • More mainstream users, or niche audiences that latch onto the app in the future, may prefer other categories.
  • The next version of the app, version 1.5, will exactly follow Craigslist areas including “for dealer” categories which are not part of the current version. Adding “for dealer” categories may increase the number of people browsing cars and trucks … or it may have little effect (many Craigslist buyers stay away from vehicles offered by dealers).
  • Version 1.5 will also expand to more Craigslist areas. Some of these areas may have be as enthusiastic about used cars.

Incidentally, version 1.5 of the app should be released any day now (assuming Apple doesn’t have any problem with it).

Strange stuff for sale: West Coast edition

For the last few weeks I’ve been testing the next iteration of our mobile selling app. There are a bunch of new features in version 1.5, but one of the most entertaining aspects of testing is rooting through the weird stuff that people post for sale on Craigslist. Here are a bunch of funny Craigslist ads from San Francisco, and I also dug up a strange item in Craigslist Los Angeles.

I may do a few more of “weird stuff for sale” ads on Craigslist. Any cities/Craigslist areas where the pickings might be especially rich?

Tips for avoiding Craigslist criminals

Over the past month, I’ve written a series of blog posts about schemes hatched by various Craigslist criminals to separate buyers from their money. The first was about Craigslist rental scams. Housing scams are ubiquitous on Craigslist. Every week I get a Google alert based on published news reports, and rental scams easily make up half of the reports that are published. Needless to say, Craigslist is a poor choice for people seeking to buy a home or rental property.

One of my discoveries concerns the ongoing foreclosure crisis. It seems to have made the rental scam situation even worse, by adding masses of unoccupied homes to local markets which bogus landlords “rent” to unsuspecting tenants (sometimes the landlords are actually former tenants who still have copies of the keys!). The new tenant hands over a deposit and the first month’s rent, but soon discovers that someone else (typically a bank) owns the property.

Today, I wrote about another profitable area for thieves — concert and sporting event tickets. The post is entitled Craigslist ticket scams: Five red flags to look for. Like rental scams, ticket cons are driven by people working remotely (a huge red flag!) who use convincing, compelling stories to get victims to wire money. But unlike rental scams or the trade of bogus/stolen cell phones, Craigslist ticket scams exploit other dimensions unique to the events business. They include rapidly approaching deadlines (which puts more urgency into the deal), the ease of creating fake tickets, and the presence of scalpers operating on the fringe of the concert/sporting events business.

3, 2, 1, classified app launch!

The startup company I cofounded has a big announcement this week: Version 1.0 of our free Craigslist iPhone app was released to the Apple App Store. The response so far has been outstanding. You can see some of the reviews on the iTunes download page, but of the best reviews was mailed to me by a big Craigslist fan:

“You really hit the mark with this. It is now my Craigslist browser of choice.”

We have some big features planned for May, including the ability to post Craigslist ads. Facebook integration and other services that aren’t even available on Craigslist are planned for later this year.

Highlighting user stories

For years, I’ve found the best way to illustrate what’s going on at the Harvard Extension School is to talk about the students and their experiences. Through interviews, personal blogs, emails, and message board postings I have been able to highlight both the good and the bad using voices that are totally authentic.

For instance, several years ago I spotted this blog post by a student who had just finished the Harvard ALB program. He was ecstatic about his experience learning under some of Harvard’s renowned faculty:

Overall I feel that I received the best undergraduate education possible. It was a great honor to study and then be a TA under Tom Hayes and run the Physics 123 lab — I think it’s entirely possible that Tom is the best introductory circuit design teacher in the world, and I know I am in great company. It was also a great honor to study cyberlaw at the Berkman center of Harvard law — as an undergraduate, I was able to take more IP, patent, copyright and digital law classes than are available at most law schools, including Larry Lessig’s former class “The Technology and Politics of Control”. I also learned Spanish with Professora Zetterstrand, studied the history of Boston under Robert Allison, and of course studied number theory, probability, topology, calculus, linear algebra, group theory, graph theory, etc. under professors Martinez, Boller, Winters, Bamberg, Towne. Astronomy at the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, Physics in the science center… comparative religious ethics and modern/contemporary American fiction in Harvard Hall. Museum studies with Mary Malloy (and the future directors of a couple dozen museums in the museum studies program), game theory with Neugeboren (who himself studied under Schelling, whose son Robert is also a close personal friend), psychology under Fersch, and the history of electronic music with Marshall all were brilliant courses also. So many of these professors were the best at what they do — leaders in their fields, the ones who wrote the books. And even though this was a “night school” program, Harvard refused to lower the bar and never failed to challenge me; many of the professors talked about how the curriculum in the college vs. night school was exactly the same, and in a number of cases the student projects and work in the night school exceeded that produced by the day students.

It’s through other user stories that I’ve been able to understand the problems with distance education at the Harvard Extension School. A group of students commenting on their distance education experience lamented the lack of interaction with their professors, despite the Extension School’s promise of “Harvard faculty and rigorous academics.”

User stories in other fields

User stories aren’t just limited to higher education. Through blogs and online reviews it’s possible to learn about all kinds of products, services, and new ways of doing things. The people telling the stories are often customers and people who practice/experience whatever they happen to be talking about.

Highlighting user stories with a C. diff case study
C. diff case study

One thing I hope to do with my nascent publishing venture is to highlight the user stories of some of my readers. The books are intended to educate people on a variety of mildly complex topics, ranging from digital technologies to science and medicine. Many readers are coming to these topics and have basic questions (“What is LinkedIn” or “What is C. diff“). I have begun to highlight some of the reviews on the book websites, but have also taken the time to talk to readers and highlighting their questions. Then there is the C. diff book, which highlights real C. diff case studies.

The next frontier for such user stories may be video. I have already found one YouTube video about one of my books and I think other people will take this route to share their experiences because it’s so easy to create the videos on a phone or computer.

Craigslist’s lawyers rework the rules

Over the weekend, I took a look at Craigslist terms, which have recently been updated. I am not lawyer and surely missed many of the subtle legal distinctions in the new text, but there were some notable changes by Craiglist’s lawyers. They include:

Removal of specific prohibitions, in favor of broad prohibitions. For instance, pornography was described in detail in the old version, but in the new version it hardly warrants a mention. But there are new sections on posts by dealers, which were not clearly addressed before the February 14 update (Valentine’s Day — any significance?)

I will write an additional post about some changes to Section 4C of the terms, which deal with “flagging” — perhaps the most frustrating aspect of Craigslist for sellers. There is also room to talk about how overly restrictive the terms are, particularly considering the service was founded by Craig Newmark in the 1990s as an embodiment of the open spirit of the early Internet.

Craigslist “by dealer” categories increase

Over on my company’s blog, I have just posted “Craigslist category list quietly expands,” after I noticed the company created a half-dozen new “by dealer” categories.

Craigslist is an unusual company in that it seldom announces new features or functionality using press releases, blogs, or other means. To most people, it looks like the site has barely changed since the late 1990s. But change does come, usually in the form of small unannounced feature changes or tweaks to its terms of use.

I only noticed the new categories because I had recorded the old categories last November, and realized that the list had changed sometime in the intervening three months. The new categories were formed by splitting appliances, auto parts, computers, electronics, cell phones and rvs into “by owner” and “by dealer”. Judging by a regular stream of angry comments in the Craigslist forum, many ordinary buyers and browsers were frustrated by dealers taking over the standalone categories, and often using tactics like overposting to drown out the listings from ordinary sellers. The new split categories makes search a lot easier, although as I noted in my blog post, dealers can still abuse the system.

A new way to browse Craigslist

Next month, my company plans on releasing the first version of our Craigslist app. It’s not going to be complicated (in fact, this early release will only let users buy on Craigslist with an iPhone or iPad), but we think it serves a big need in the marketplace. On a PC, Craigslist’s Web interface is oriented toward text. The Invantory app is really oriented toward photos, as you can see from the screenshot below:

Craigslist bike listing

If there are more than two photos, all it takes is a horizontal swipe of the thumb to see the other photos. The other innovation relates to browsing: Instead of reading text lists, users are presented with thumbnails. This makes it much easier to visually identify items of interest and skip over items that are of no interest.

We’re excited about the app and hope you can give it a spin.

Classifieds app UX

How many classifieds apps are out there? In my review of Craigslist Mobile, I observed about a dozen in the Apple App Store and 20 in Android Market (aka Google Play). Why they exist is not a surprise — Craigslist is the most popular local classifieds marketplace in existence. But what I did find surprising were the poor design, user interfaces and user flow (collectively known as user experience, or UX) that had gone into the apps. For instance, as I noted in the Craigslist Mobile review concerning the classified app UX:

” … The Craigslist Mobile UX is not helped by placing all required fields right next to each other on the same page, which requires lots of text input and screen manipulation, and increases the chances of making a mistake. The ‘add photo’ button takes users to stored photos on the iOS device; a separate button accesses the camera directly.”

There were many other UX issues identified in the review. Options crowd each screen and are hard to find or activate, users are forced to navigate back to the home screen to change settings, strange color schemes are used, text rather than photos dominates the browsing experience, etc. Some of these issues relate to Craigslist’s requirements for listings, but others are the direct result of choices the app designers made. Despite the crowded field, the designers of other apps often decided to copy what was already out there rather than innovating on UX and differentiating themselves.

Is there any other way to do classifieds app UX? Certainly. EggDrop, Zaarly and Rumgr point the way, with a user-centric (rather than engineer-centric) approach to design, UI, and user flow. There is no clutter on the small screens. Good color choices were made by the designers. Images and maps look sharp. It’s easy to find what you’re looking for, switch views, or change options. This is the way classified app UX should be.

An example of good UX: Zaarly

Zaarly Map

Quantifying the pain of creating an advertisement on Craigslist

A lot of people don’t appreciate how much of a pain it is to make a listing on Craigslist. There are dozens of discrete steps involved, as I describe on my post about how to make an ad on Craigslist. I also reveal how much time it takes, on average, to create a classified ad. While 5-10 minutes may not sound like much, if you are emptying out your home prior to a move, or getting rid of a bunch of baby stuff, it’s a major hassle, as listing just 20 items with photos will take more than two hours.

One man we talked with had just this sort of experience. An MIT graduate student, he planned to move out of his student housing shortly after graduation. So he decided to put his stuff on Craigslist. Very quickly he realized that he would run out of time. The result? “I only listed the big stuff, like the sofa,” he said. “The small stuff, I either took with me or put it out on the curb.”

That’s a lost opportunity — he could have made a few hundred dollars if he had the time to sell the other stuff. It would have given value to other people, too. Instead, he only managed to sell a few items, and some of his belongings ended up in a landfill.