It’s always difficult for any big site to test and roll out new features. Many companies just test internally until they determine they have something good enough to roll out. But a growing trend is to let your users do the work for you. Google, for example, uses its Labs to publicly test new ideas — some of which are later implemented in Google services, while others just fall by the wayside.
At the Garden, users can choose to test out new features that integrate into their typical eBay experience by opting-in, or choose to try out stand-alone features like the new Diamond Ring Designer. Users can also rate and review the new tools, which will be continually updated. Instead of using the typical “beta” terminology used in software testing, eBay divides its budding features into “Seeds” and “Plants.”
The first “seed” feature is a streamlined eBay search interface. The new search offers some much-needed upgrades over the interface eBay’s had for many years. After opting-in, your search results appear in a clean-looking list that forgoes much of the visual clutter that we’re used to from eBay. The search refinement column on the left is now hidden by default, and ads are nowhere to be seen (although I’m certain this won’t last once the new search is actually released). Also nifty: The search box stays at the top of the screen as you scroll down, which makes it easy to refine a search without jumping to the top of the page.
The new search interface also allows users to switch between the different viewing modes quicker than before, and it drops the “Snapshot” viewing mode in favor of a side-by-side option. I’ve always found the snapshot mode to be particularly useless — it simply displayed the icons of search results as a confusing mess without text — so I’m glad to see it go.
Overall, the new interface is notable for the way it lets users focus completely on search results instead of being distracted by clutter. Since eBay relies on the power of its search to get customers to the exact item they’re looking for — perhaps a 1986 vintage My Little Pony Princess Starburst doll — it behooves the company to improve its search functionality as much as possible.
As a fan of crowd sourcing in general, I think it’s going to work out well for eBay. It allows the company to see how users respond to new ideas, and gives intrepid users new toys to play with. Then again, I may be a bit biased, since I’m just happy eBay’s foray into crowd sourcing finally got me a better eBay search.