Grey Is Invisible… On Purpose?

Posted By Debbie on April 7, 2011

In yesterday’s blog post, I wrote about how I think some sites are mis-using the colour grey, especially for text. They’re making text harder to read, which hurts the user experience.

Today, I want to write about a different take on using grey and how it affects the user experience. Today’s example is eBay. A few years ago, eBay removed most of the design and personality from their site. They stopped using their main font (Matrix), and made everything very plain. The site now mostly has no design. It mostly looks like a wireframe to me. But that’s a complaint for another day. Today’s complaint is that eBay uses grey on purpose to make things invisible… on purpose.

eBay’s search results are sorted, by default, in an order called Best Match. This is eBay’s algorithm. But you can “opt out.” You can re-sort your search results to sort by price, what’s newly listed, what’s ending soon, and a few other choices. Not everybody knows that. You might not know that because the UI doesn’t highlight that feature. eBay would want to be able to show that when search results come in, people stick with Best Match because Best Match works. If eBay made it clearer that you could re-sort, I think more people would, and the numbers would show less adoption and more “opting out” of the Best Match search results. I re-sort every time to lowest price.

Take a look at some sample search results. Notice where the sorting option is? (click to enlarge)

Did you find it? It’s not that easy. It’s in a fairly logical place, but the page has SO many paths for you to go down that it’s easy to not notice the sorting option. You’re naturally looking at the search results. You’re also eyeing the left side categories to try to figure out how to narrow down your results. You may not notice tiny grey words on a white menu on a grey background with “Sort By” written in dark grey on a light grey background. Invisible, but I think deliberately so.

I’d like to see eBay innovating again. I blogged in 2009 (in a different blog) about some ideas I had for eBay, how they could use sliding panels with side tabs to show and hide the information people want to know when looking at an individual item for sale. These tabs would stay anchored on the side as you scroll down the page. That way, you don’t have to scroll back up to see shipping details or the seller’s reputation. I still think this would work very well for the eBay “vibe” and experience, plus it would solve problems sellers and buyers experience on the individual item page, which eBay calls the View Item page.

But back to my original point. Grey on purpose is, well, strange. I would love to see eBay search results where the “Sort By” menu is brightly coloured and hard to miss. I’d like to know if they see more re-sorting from that, and then, do they see more purchases because people are then finding more of what they want, thanks to the items sorted another way. I’d LOVE to see this tested. I don’t think eBay will do it, but I’d love to see it tested.