My wife and I finally moved into our new place here in Chicago, but not after a stressful and seemingly endless journey of searching, visiting, falling in love with, falling out of love with, and falling in love again with apartments. And hallelujah, we finally found one. Like anyone who has gone through a similar experience, you become strangely intimate with apartment rental websites, often having a rotations of viable sites that you visit 3 – 28 times a day.
As part of a team that works to maximize UX/UI every day, not all of these sites are not created equal. So I’m going to do my best to give you a rundown of a few major players, hopefully saving you time and reducing your frustrations.
I would bet Zillow is the go-to for many, mainly because most people don’t know where else to beg for help. Zillow is certainly a legitimate choice, and has a number of great features for dialing into which neighborhoods or areas you want to search. It even has this fun little tool that let’s you draw circles (or R29s) around areas you want to focus on.
Even with filtering tools to narrow your search, the interface feels terribly cluttered. There are so many options that are irrelevant to my search (what is a Verified Source anyway?), and numerous ill-placed ads that ultimately add to the aforementioned clutter.
It looks like in an effort to give us every option imaginable in our quest, the pals at Zillow went a little wild and are actually inhibit the ability to move freely around this thing. To finish off the experience, the endless automated emails related to my last search and saved homes makes me want to give up and move back in with my parents. Overall a decent site, but I tend to become immobilized with the interface.
Ah, Craigslist: the website people use for reckless, backdoor hookups or buying a 2005 Honda Element. Yes, it looks like a the golden era of early 90’s government web design. And yes, there are some seriously sketchy (or funny) posts you can find. Despite the site’s reputation, damnit if it doesn’t do its job. You’re able to narrow search by mileage from a zip code, number of rooms, cost, etc with relative ease. Even more valuable than the filter options is the default setting of showing apartments in gallery view rather than randomly clicking points on a map and hoping for the best.
From my experience, the primary drawback is that the platform is so open ended in the fields that posters can use, that it’s difficult to ONLY get listings in a particular neighborhood. You have to use good old-fashioned, strategized search terms, and even then, sometimes posters think they’re SEO outlaws and will put a bunch of neighborhoods in the bottom of their post so they’ll show up no matter what you type. This leads you to serious FOMO when you’re searching for a place, because there’s no way to know if there’s a secret oasis of Lincoln Park apartments with 4 bedrooms for less than $1000 a month, but you just don’t know how to find them.
As sketchy as this site is, for some reason it WORKS. I’ve found my last 2 apartments here. I suppose most people looking to rent their pads and have them listed on other sites think, “well, what could it hurt to throw it on Craigslist?” The answer is it doesn’t hurt anything, it’s just scary to know that your place is listed on the same site people use to sell weird stuff.
Next up on this wonderful journey is RadPad, the cool millennial nephew of the apartment search world who works as a tech consultant in SF. RadPad is a great tool because they keep things simple. You have the basic search tools and criterion, and the design just looks and feels better. I really like how they group together listings that are in close proximity if you’re zoomed out enough – especially valuable in dense cities like Chiraq. Even when you’re dealing with excessive listings, the experience rarely feels overwhelming.
We seem to have found a good mix between Craigslist and Zillow, where the gallery view is the default setting, while still being able to dig into a specific area. It’s sort of annoying how every listing opens a new window, but I can understand why someone would use that functionality to keep track of listing they’re interested in. Another good tool is being able to scroll through images of listing without going to that listing’s page, so you can determine pretty quickly if you’re interested.
I think it’s interesting how similar the site layout is to AirBnb, which would make sense considering RadPad may be attempting to go after the short term rental market, which AirBnB essentially invented.
If I had to pick one of these sites to accompany me onto the apartment search battleground, it will have to be RadPad. It has a really great blend of engaging interface tools that are actually easy to manage, and the layout of the listings gives you the best of all worlds. While it is currently the trendy option, this popularity seems to be rightly-founded.
So what can we learn from this as designers and strategists? The answer may not be something we all want to hear. Abundant choice and flexibility isn’t always a good thing, particularly when users have a set criteria for what they’re looking for. In my case, my apartment rental search consists of 3 variables: number of bedrooms, location, and price. Apart from those things, I have little use for other tools and they only distract me from using those ones I do need.
There’s an important lesson here for anyone designing an experience on the web. It’s being disciplined about asking what someone wants to do, and how we can make that as easy as possible through streamlining all other processes. After all, most of our websites are a means to an end. We design them so people will fill out a form, go somewhere, buy something, donate, share, contact a rental agent, or a multitude of other actions. The goal is never to keep them on a site, trying to figure out how to use the tool best.
We don’t need more options, we need more ease. Ease, and to find that downtown, three-bedroom loft for under $1000 a month.