Mike Isaac

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eBay CEO John Donahoe on the Importance of Design

John Donahoe FortuneEBay is a monster of e-commerce.

With a $67 billion market cap, upward of 130 million monthly active users and tens of billions in volume moving through the service regularly, it’s hard to argue against that statement.

But while being around for the better part of twenty years affords many successes, eBay has had to shift its strategy in terms of look, feel and user experience in recent years as younger, more nimble e-shopping outfits enter the market. Fab.com, The Find, The Fancy and others put special emphasis on how design improves customer experience.

I caught up with eBay CEO John Donahoe at Fortune’s Brainstorm Tech conference in Aspen last week, right after a talk he gave on design and entrepreneurship with Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky. Read some of his thoughts in our conversation (edited for brevity) about design in general and eBay in particular below.

AllThingsD: So, in your talk you hinted at “design” specifically as a priority for eBay at the moment. Can you talk about that some more?

Donahoe: I’ll take you to a macro-level on this. We knew five years ago that we had to significantly improve our user experience. From end to end. So we focused a lot on search, visual identity. And then mobile came along. And mobile was the chance for us to start over.

Give me some examples of starting over on mobile.

Our first iPhone mobile app was at that point the best user experience we had. It forced us to get simple. We had to strip everything down to the bare essentials and put it on the smallest form factor imaginable. We were recognized for our design here. Then our iPad app came out, and again, our iPad app was our best experience. Even better than the phone. And it was different, we didn’t try to do the exact same on the iPad as we did on the iPhone.

So essentially, with 130 million active users and $70 billion in volume passing through this, you have all these edge cases in outside companies. On mobile, simplicity is forced, and from there you expand.

So tell me some of the steps you took to get to a better place in mobile design.

Well, we actually went out and bought one of the leading mobile design companies — Critical Path software. Three years ago we identified that this was critical for us, asked ourselves who was the best in the business, found that it was Critical Path, and we bought them. So now we have several hundred of the best mobile app designers and developers working full time on eBay’s mobile apps.


Asa Mathat / AllThingsD.com

Cool. What about the Web? I’m sure not everyone accesses eBay primarily through mobile apps.

Well, that design is actually now working its way back through to our Web experience. What we hear consistently is that it’s far better than it used to be. But now the two places I want us to go to the next level are the full end-to-end experience — the moment you think about buying something, to the moment it’s in your hands. This is where Brian’s [Chesky, of Airbnb] design thinking notion comes into play.

Consumers actually want choice. People want the product when they want it, how they want it, where they want it.

So there are times where I want something shipped to me overnight. But sometimes I want it today — that’s where eBay Now comes into play. It gets a product into your hands within an hour. That’s taking a design mentality to an end-to-end user experience.

And the other example of expansion?

The feed. Engaging in a more social experience, ultimately being able to share that, and be a part of curation, be a part of sharing.

This world of social commerce hasn’t really exploded yet. And I think it’s going to develop differently from mobile, across categories and segments. You can bring eBay listings to your Facebook, Pinterest collections, onto Twitter. And focusing on buying that item within one click.

Creating discovery environments within the eBay ecosystem. Again, the feed.

Devin [Wenig], the president of our eBay Marketplace, has done a really incredible job in leading design efforts, especially with the Feed. And David [Marcus, PayPal president] has also done a fantastic job, and is actually a designer himself.

And ultimately improving search. Bringing the best products to you, the most relevant results in an easy-to-read way. Redesigning how we return search results on mobile. You can choose how you view those results — the challenge is we have almost too much inventory. How do we bring it to you in a way that on your own terms, shows you the way you want to browse? We’re just trying to make it easy to engage with the content.

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Just as the atom bomb was the weapon that was supposed to render war obsolete, the Internet seems like capitalism’s ultimate feat of self-destructive genius, an economic doomsday device rendering it impossible for anyone to ever make a profit off anything again. It’s especially hopeless for those whose work is easily digitized and accessed free of charge.

— Author Tim Kreider on not getting paid for one’s work