A few weeks ago, I wrote a Eulogy to eBay Express here on this blog, and it rapidly became one of my most popular posts ever. (Of course, nothing quite competes with the Battlestar Galactica posts, but I digress…)
Last week, eBay quietly announced the death of Bid Assistant, a product concept that I remember fondly from my days at eBay, and I thought it would be worth a few minutes to reflect back on lessons from the life span of that effort. The truth is, while eBay gets a lot of press coverage from both the traditional media and from bloggers, I see very little, if any, actual detailed discussion of the features themselves, whether good, bad or ugly. Usually, you just see factual reports, like this.
Bid-O-Matic, the original concept behind Bid Assistant, is an idea that goes back to at least 2005, if not earlier. The problem it was attempting to solve is pretty much as old as auction bidding on eBay:
- As a buyer, you often find several auctions for the item you are looking to buy, at various stages of completion.
- If you bid on only one auction, the price of that auction might go too high, and you might have missed out on one of the other auctions.
- If you bid on more than one auction, then you run the risk of winning more than one item.
eBay, of course, frowns on retracting bids, let alone backing out of a completed winning bid, so it’s a difficult situation to handle. If you talked to any of the regular auction buyers on eBay, they would give you a personal story relating to this problem. Try bidding on a digital camera some time, and you’ll feel the issue pretty quickly.
Bid-O-Matic was supposed to be the first step in building a true eBay assistant for bidding. You, as a buyer, would pick out a list of equivalent items to bid on. Bid-O-Matic would then place bids for you, attempting to win exactly one of the items at the lowest possible price.
That was the idea, anyway. Like many great product ideas, it had its roots in a real customer problem; a customer problem expressed in earnest by some of eBay’s best customers, it’s regular auction buyers. And it was a classic case where technology could dramatically improve the customer experience.
And like many a road to hell, it was paved with good intentions.
Bid-O-Matic originally failed to get traction within the company, largely because the cost of building the feature did not seem to justify the incremental improvement to the eBay business. The problem mathematically is that frequent auction buyers actually already buy a lot, so it was hard to see how this tool would really help them buy that much more. In addition, the problem is unique enough to advanced users that it was hard to imagine that many auction buyers who weren’t regular buyers adopting the tool.
Bid-O-Matic stayed just a concept, until renewed focus on improving the auction experience really took hold in 2006 as part of the “eBay 3.0” concept. Bid-O-Matic seemed like the perfect example of a feature that eBay’s best auction buyers would love, and so despite the numbers, the feature was given the green light.
Without going into too much gory detail, after much pain, schedule changes, cost increases, design compromises, and a typically horrific naming process, Bid Assistant was born.
While I was a huge fan of the initial concept, and of the people who worked on it, as a user I was never really able to engage with Bid Assistant. It required a fairly arcane knowledge of “Watching”, the eBay process for bookmarking auctions. The integration points were also fairly tortured – there was very little in the actual Finding and Buying experiences to lead you to discover the Bid Assistant. Worse, I think fixed price listings severely limited the potential benefit of the feature. Bid-O-Matic was never useful for multiple, unique, one-of-a-kind collectibles. And if you are buying a commodity item, like a specific model of digital camera, then just buying it on eBay Express (or Shopping.com or Amazon.com) made much more sense.
Like all Product professionals, features like Bid-O-Matic leave me torn. On the one hand, I want to say that there was a real user problem here, and that with the right research, design inspiration, and iteration, eBay could have come up with a great product here. On the other hand, that time and effort is expensive, and there are likely much more important problems eBay could be putting that effort towards.
In any case, I just want to say goodbye to the Bid Assistant, and a brief acknowledgement to the team that built it. Better to have tried and failed than to never have tried at all.