Improving the eBay Experience: Interview with Hugh Williams

By Campbell Phillips | 14 Aug 2013

As an expert in search technologies and published scholar, Hugh Williams provides insight into ongoing industry trends and how they’re reflected in evolving the eBay experience.

When it comes to adapting and advancing its user experience, eBay employs some of the greatest minds as part of an extensive, multi-regional development team and none more so than Hugh Williams, Vice President of eBay Experience, Search and Platforms.

Williams could be considered a polymath for all things search, having worked in the field for over 16 years. Previously he lead a large development team at Microsoft’s Bing and also held a position as Associate Professor at RMIT in Melbourne.

An Australian born, Williams recently visited his homeland to meet with the local development team. Having been the driving force on several major eBay updates in the past, we were keen to find out more about his latest project.

“I like to get out at least once a year and speak with developers on the ground. In this case I wanted to find out what’s really going on in the Australian market, what’s important to Australian businesses and consumers, so that I can better help develop and tailor our products.”

Product Search and Curation

In this case, the current discussion is very much focused on improving the buyer experience through search and personalisation, which eBay has met with its latest search update, Cassini, and a highly graphical interface for browsing products known as Feed.

Williams believes that these changes are being driven by a new, customer-centric retail attitude, and that eBay has been able to capitalise on this trend.

“I’m really excited about the idea that customers can come back to the website and frequently find new and inspirational content that will help them to discover products and sellers. As far as Feed is concerned, I’d like to add even more creative elements where people can put together collections or items they’re interested in and share those with a network,” he says.

To a certain extent, eBay’s Feed is analogous to Amazon’s new ‘Collections’ interface – both having an obvious focus on imagery. While Feed presaged Collections, both require a number of improvements before they can be considered full-flung social commerce platforms – but that is the direction in which they’re headed.

Hugh Williams of eBay

Hugh Williams, VP of Experience, Search and Platforms at eBay

“I’d love to have consumers be able to really follow sellers, to learn more about the sellers, their personalities and what they’re selling on-site,” Williams explains. “We need to bring back as many of these community connecting elements, because that’s where we’ve come from: enabling a community to connect and engage in commerce.”

 Making Use of Data

As a scholar and developer at once, Williams exhibits a true passion for data that goes well beyond search algorithms. For eBay, he believes that data is essential to improving the platform’s offering for both sellers and buyers.

“Being a technologist at heart, there’s one trend in particular that I find quite interesting right now and that is how much data we have access to. We have so much information on our customers, what they use and how they use it – we have a massive opportunity to gain insight from this information to improve our business as well as the businesses of our sellers.”

Data not only has the ability to aid eBay’s constant efforts to tweak its platform, providing even better personalisation and discovery features for consumers, it can also be served up to the sellers that eBay supports, allowing them to gain useful insight into their own performance.

It is this direction that eBay is beginning to scrutinise more closely, Williams explains.

“Our success is directly related to the success of our sellers, so we’re currently looking to create better tools to enable them access to this data and to glean their own insights from it. We’re hoping to have a number of big updates on this over the next year.”

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