Posted by & filed under Accessibility and Usability.

Written by James Baster

Designing a website involves more than drawing pretty pictures. It’s important to think about how people use a website and about giving them the best information with the right amount of flexibility with minimal obstructions. In this article, we take a popular website and give it a fresh redesign.
What is FreeCycle?

FreeCycle is a service to encourage people to offer their unused items to others in their local community – the items are offered for free and the service is free to use. What usually happens is that people with something to offer advertise and then choose a successful claimant on their own criteria (maybe the first person, the most convenient person, or a good cause like a local charity.) They then arrange with the claimant to pick the item up at a mutually convenient time – the claimant is usually responsible for transport. Anything can be offered: from small pieces of furniture to cars. Users can also post wanted ads.

From its founding in May 1st 2003, FreeCycle has grown massively and is now internationally known. I have personally used it to give away items and claim items. I am a huge fan and hope the people behind the site take this article in the spirit it is meant – as constructive criticism designed only to improve an already great service. I have also worked in volunteer organisations before and I greatly appreciative the time people donate.

For more, see

How Does it Work?

For every local area with a FreeCycle group, there is a Yahoo Group. People send emails to the list with one of 4 headings: “Offered”, “Taken” or “Wanted”,”Received”. If you see an offer you like you reply directly to the user off-list. When everything has been arranged, a “Taken” email is sent so other users know the item has gone. (On a busy list, offers can be snapped up in minutes). To prevent spam and other problems, volunteer administrators have to approve each message.  For instance, here’s my last exchange:

Tue Mar 24, 2009 11:28 pm
OFFER: Memory (Edinburgh)
32MB Compact Flash
512MB Compact Flash

Just send me your address and I’ll stick one (or more) in the post.

I received 20 offers, and picked 2 local charities.

Wed Mar 25, 2009 5:04 pm
TAKEN: Memory (Edinburgh)
Gone to two local charities, thanks for the interest.


I got too many emails to reply to all the failures, so I didn’t. When I’ve applied for things and lost out, I very rarely received “Sorry” emails, so I think this is usual behaviour.

Each local group is run by volunteer administrators and while the basic concept is the same, details can vary wildly. For instance, on applying to join one group, I was asked for my name, age and location. I gave them this information, but politely asked why they wanted it. I got no reply, but when my application was accepted the administrator changed my subscription from “notices only” to “all emails”. I prefer to browse on the web and save my email box the extra traffic, but the administrator had decided to overrule my preference.

So what’s the problem?

Before I start, I want to make clear I don’t blame FreeCycle for these problems. They started small with one group and things worked well. But now they have grown at an amazing rate, and these problems have become serious.

On a busy list there are too many emails. It’s easy to drown under them. Some simple email  filtering rules can help but not everyone knows how to do that. And Yahoo’s search is so poor that to find the 2 emails above, I had to find them manually in the end.

“Taken” emails are not matched to “Offered” emails automatically (or “Received” to “Wanted”) so it is a pain to know if a offer is still open. Again, you have to search by hand.  And because emails have to be approved by the group administrators before posting, there is a delay before they appear.

The “Taken” and “Received” emails effectively means that the traffic in a group is doubled. If they could be eliminated that would save both users and administrators extra work.

Finally the administrators spend a lot of time ensuring people post proper emails with the required information, the right subject and full details. For instance, in the example above the administrators told me off for putting Edinburgh as a area; they wanted a more exact area to help people decide whether they could pick the item up  (for what it’s worth, I reckoned it didn’t matter as I was offering to post the memory sticks). Administrators also seem to spend time on manual tasks like adding users to the group and sending them documents – a process which could be automated.

On a different note, some people have ethical objections to Yahoo and are trying to organise a boycott.

What are they trying to do about it?

FreeCycle has taken several approaches to solve these problems.

Freecycle browser plug-in

Freecycle browser plug-in

First they had a “form maker”, an on-line webpage with fields for each bit of information, ensuring users included all the required information. They replaced it with a browser tool-bar for FireFox and Internet Explorer. However the screen shot they provide shows pretty much the same functionality.

The plugin also offers several other features: it keeps a list of your posts and makes it easy to post a “Taken” message after you have posted a “Offered”. Crucially, it also attempts to hide “Offer”  messages after a “Taken” message is seen – but it only does this for 30 days and as it does it by trying to match the subject lines it isn’t always accurate.

In my opinion, to replace the “form maker” with the plugin instead of offering both was a very bad decision. It fundamentally misunderstands the key strength of the web – that services are available to any user, at any location, at any time with no additional software to install. Some users don’t want to install extra software on their computers. Even if they did, what if they are at another location like an internet cafe, can’t install extra software due to security policies, or use another browser like Safari?

The whole point of usability is to remove obstacles to a user participating in the service; in attempting to solve the problem of users not providing information, FreeCycle have put up a massive obstacle. Of course, you don’t have to use the plug-in – but then you are back to the issue of users not providing the right information.

The Biggest Problem

Actually, that’s not strictly true. When researching this article, I realised the old “form maker” is still there; they have just removed the link from my local Yahoo Group for some reason. Whether there is a link (and whether the plug-in works) depends on what the local administrator is happy with. There seem to be 4 different options for posting.

And this is the biggest problem. They seem to have taken the Computer Geeks solution to a problem – provide alternatives and let the users figure it out. But their target audience aren’t geeks; they’re normal users. Normal users are confused by such choices and a lot of the time when they get confused they give up. This article was prompted by comments from several users who had given up – the email list was to much for them. A single, simple, unified approach is needed to ensure users stay with the service.

Actually, I suspect the problem is more that a community of volunteers is likely to end up
with fragmentation, as people want to do things their way. You can see this in the local group that took my personal details and changed my subscription – this is not a universal policy.

Trying to impose a standard practice may mean volunteers leave – and loyal volunteers are probably free-cycle’s biggest asset. But an organisation with no central control is also in a bad situation. This is a tricky situation – as with most things in life, a balance is needed. We shall return to this point.

So how would I run FreeCycle then?

Fundamentally, I would scrap Yahoo Groups. The problem is they are trying to to make it something it’s not. The basic concept of FreeCycle has structured data; this is then thrown away to fit into Yahoo Groups; then they write browser plugins to try to bring structure back. This is a key concept; structured data is often far more useful than unstructured. Whenever I see people struggling to find a small firm’s contact details in Google (unstructured data) I wonder why they don’t try, the Yellow Pages online (structured data).

I would turn it into a website service, where users can sign up with their email address. When they do, they choose the areas they want to watch. This could be more than one; for instance I live in Edinburgh but would happily travel to Glasgow to pick up something I really wanted. They would then automatically be subscribed to all notices from that area – I will come back to subscriptions later.

Now suppose I want to offer my memory sticks: I would fill out a form on a website that looked pretty much the same as above. The form can be validated to check for errors automatically. If there are none, the site administrator’s will still want to check the content to ensure there is no abuse or spam. Then, all subscribers in my area would be sent a email:

Tue Mar 24, 2009 11:28 pm
OFFER: Memory (Edinburgh, Computers)
32MB Compact Flash
512MB Compact Flash

Just send me your address and I’ll stick one (or more) in the post.

For more information on this offer please view this webpage:

My suggested Freecycle interface

My suggested Freecycle interface

That webpage would look like this.

You can see it’s clear that the object is still available; if it wasn’t we would replace the reply form with a sympathetic message. You can see how many replies it has had and you can reply quickly.  We have added a category for each item, an embedded map of the area, and a distance from your current location. This is a very simple and clear layout with no distractions.

When a reply is sent it could either be emailed directly to the original poster, or all replies can be listed on a private webpage for them, thus saving their inbox. After they have dealt with the offer, they can mark it as closed. Replies would have a “To mark this item as taken, click here” link automatically attached, so it would be easy to do this. (When an item was taken, people who had applied could be emailed automatically alerting them – then they would know whether had been successful.)

Let us return to alert emails. By default, every user would receive all emails in their area. Due to the lack of a “Taken” or “Received” emails, the volume they receive would be halved (and administrator’s moderation work would be halved). But it could be reduced further if users could set filters for what they were looking for. Maybe they could only choose to look for certain objects, such as posts with the words “Table”. Maybe they could only look for objects in a certain category, or if transport is a problem, maybe objects in their immediate area. Or for those that have moved on from email, RSS feeds could be offered via a discreet button at the bottom the page.

Also, there is no need to sign up – users could browse active offers on the site without signing up.   This way you would increase the readership without putting barriers in people’s way – for some people, simply signing up is still a barrier. Although in this case, the site would have to be careful to protect the privacy of it’s users – notice the screenshot above has no personal information apart from a name field (and users could choose to put anything there).

Message boards for each area could easily be offered. Also it would be easy to generate statistics on how many offers people have posted – but I would be wary of going down this road as people may be judged negatively, or people may start to try to “game” the system to get a better score. In any case, site administrators could use anonymous statistics to get far more information than they could currently get, which would help them plan the future of the service.

Is there anything like this?

Are FreeCycle already trying this? There is a new beta site. At the moment it just seems to organise Yahoo Groups – but a message says there are long terms plans to allow groups to be hosted on this and not Yahoo, so who knows what their plans are.

The principal ideas I am suggesting are not new either – they are just like a website that lists job vacancies. In those, each job is categorised by several bits of information like category or location, and users can set up advanced search tools to inform them by email of jobs they may be interested in. Also, with the addition of a price field this could be used for a classified ads site like CraigsList or Gumtree.

Migrating from the old FreeCycle to the new one without losing users

Firstly, they could set up a web site for an area and have all emails from it feed into the Yahoo list. People could either post their ads the old way or the new way. While many would stick with the old way, enough people like trying new things that the new site would get a proper testing. At this stage the subscription filters would be useless as adverts that were posted directly to the group would bypass them.

When it was time to switch, administrators could ban all posting on the Yahoo group but keep sending all notices from the new website to the Yahoo group. Old users would still get service; but slowly as they wanted to post items or the benefits of the subscription filters became clear, they would move to the new site at their own pace.

To avoid losing users and volunteer administrators, such a switch would happen slowly. Several keen groups would probably try it first, and the rest would only switch if the benefits did turn out to be clear and concrete. However, we may just end up contributing one more possible solution to the mess of solutions which is causing the problem – we may in fact make it worse. To ensure a consistent interface, an essential part of this would have to be the understanding that eventually all FreeCycle Groups would standardise on this system.

FreeCycle’s biggest asset is its users and volunteers who are loyal to their brand, and they have to be careful not to lose them. If FreeCycle would agree to standardise on this, or some other solution, it would solve a lot of problems they have. But clearly they can not force by dictat; instead a process of consultation with their volunteers will be essential. All the details could be up for discussion but the basic principle of a standard system to ensure usability should not be.

Any Disadvantages?

The costs of server maintenance (both resources and staff) previously borne by Yahoo would now be borne by FreeCycle. While FreeCycle would now be in charge of their own data and could sell their own adverts instead of Yahoos, this may not make enough to cover their costs. They would have a large database they could mine to sell to advertisers, but there is only so much of this they could do before users viewed these adverts as intrusive and invading their privacy. They may be reliant on donations and grants for this to work.

Some may say moving from a relatively closed group to a more open site would diminish the sense of community, and make volunteers less willing to be involved. While some people get heavily involved with the FreeCycle community the majority don’t – they simply want to use the service occasionally. It makes no sense to shut the majority out by having a closed door policy, and I don’t believe that an open door policy would diminish the community anyway. (This is based on the theory of the long tail.)

The Volunteers …

Incidentally, some may think I am giving undue importance to the local volunteers. When I was at University, I saw many websites for students. Most of them were by big companies, with a local section for each university. They never did well. Only two did – both created, owned and ran by local students. (Disclaimer: One of them was me: but I am measuring success by the objective measures of active users and posts. One of them is still going strong, even against FaceBook.). A local sense of community is very important.

But at the moment, volunteers seem to be involved at a very technical level – witness the administrator collecting personal information and changing peoples email subscriptions (By collecting personal information this volunteer may be opening FreeCycle to problems under the Data Protection Act). This is a area where odds are they don’t have the expertise to understand the decisions they are making.

With a central system, administrators would work within a framework where technical decisions would be taken cautiously and they would simply be tapped for local knowledge. And remember, administration work would be much reduced. This would free their time, which could then be spent organising local advertising and events.  For instance, what about the tradition of “fashion swap parties” – isn’t this the kind of thing FreeCycle could be organising on a local level?

FreeCycle could operate like  CraigsList or Gumtree, a central operation with no local workers – but I think local volunteers could do a lot for FreeCycle.

What Next?

I would like to prompt discussion within FreeCycle on these topics. I am a huge fan and hope it goes from strength to strength. Even if nothing comes of it, I hope this article illustrates the benefits of thinking through each problem individually to come up with the best solution. Hopefully it also illustrates the importance of ensuring your website is integrated closely into your business model – thinking about your website as an afterthought is a recipe for failure. Either way, I look forward to many more years FreeCycling.

Update: Freecycle said : “We really appreciate your advice and you’ll be glad to know that we are actually in the process of doing a lot of what you recommend”. They are working on a website that a couple of hundred groups already used and pointed me to one.

2 Responses to “Usability Case Study – Freecycle”

  1. local small business seo

    Local Lookup is a thing which has typically been overlooked and I’m not certain why. Perhaps it’s mainly because fewer local companies are aware of SEO in general or maybe it’s because the only companies offering Seek charge a similar rates as “national seo” which entails optimizing for big areas rather than focusing on local markets which could mean the world to your company.

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