Upgrading BBC Blogs: Moving to a new blogging platform
The new 'lively' default theme on the new blogs platform, applied to an example blog homepage on a light background and an 'all posts' page on a dark background.
It's been more than five years since the first few BBC blogs were set up in Movable Type and in that time the software has hosted up to four hundred services at any one time.
I have been Product Manager for blogs for the past two years. In that time I have managed a number of changes, such as the previous blogs redesign in Barlesque, the redesign of the blogs homepage and the introduction of various other features such as the new comments module and Sharetools.
For the past year or so I've been working on the latest blog upgrade. This is the most extensive yet as it involves significant changes to the blogs platform as well as look and feel. Today I am announcing the launch of the first blog, Writersroom, which sits on the new platform and represents a fresh design.
This is our proof of concept and the first stage in the process; from here we will begin to upgrade the other blogs as well as adding various new features along the way.
To get to this point has involved a massive collaboration and work from a dedicated development team who had to learn about new technology and systems, our audience research specialists and User Experience and Design team who looked at what is best for you our audience, and editorial stakeholders across the Business who interact with you via blogs on a daily basis and have a wealth of understanding about what you want as well as what they need from a blogging tool.
I'll explain the detail around the changes we have made to blogs. I'm really pleased with what we've come up with but this is only the first stage and your feedback is invaluable to help guide what happens going forward.
In 2010 we recognised that the upkeep of the Movable Type platform which hosted the BBC blogs was becoming a significant overhead. This coupled with changes in support arrangements led to my development team and I conducting a review in October 2010. My review involved deciding the future for blogs at the BBC and what should be the underlying blogging platform. There was clearly still an audience desire for blogs and their content but the platform needed some work. We did some initial investigation which indicated significant complications due to the hundreds of different, non-standardised blogs and decided that it was not cost effective to undertake this work for a blogs bespoke Content Production System when compared to some of the other tools being used internally.
In line with the BBC Strategy to consolidate the online offering, outlined by Erik Huggers in 2011 we set ourselves the goal to rationalise the BBC's blog offering whilst ensuring the delivery of quality services in the most cost effective manner.
It became apparent that of the tools available iSite (the BBC version of the third party software Alfresco) was a clear favourite for several reasons:
- It sits on the common BBC development platform which means that we can share features and functionality with the other products in the same infrastructure.
- The Content Management System (CMS) is optimal for the BBC's architecture and compared to the other technologies we looked at this required very little development work to achieve a basic working system which could then be enhanced iteratively.
- There is established internal support and training for iSite and we would no longer need to provide extra internal resource for maintenance.
The next strategic challenge was to align the overall design of BBC blogs up with the GEL standards in line with the rest of BBC Online, moving away from bespoke designs towards a more standardised look, feel and navigation.
We also recognised that this was a great opportunity to take a step back and find out what users think of our existing blogs. We undertook extensive audience research earlier this year; this involved surveys, diary studies and depth interviews to establish how our blogs are used, what you like, dislike and therefore what we should look to change.
What we found out
Overall, users like the general layout of blogs; instinctively recognising these as blogs due to an index page with posts listed in reverse chronological order and having comments displayed at the bottom of each post.
The overall design is intuitive and easy to follow, in particular having white space to break up text and differentiate between posts but without making the page look empty. Additionally people like the sidebar modules and generally find these lead on to useful areas. However, the boxes at the bottom of the page (archives, categories, authors) were seen as useful but wrongly situated (most people thought these should be on the right hand side).
Users liked reasonably meaty posts and in particular those broken up with images and audio or video content but didn't like having to scroll through particularly long posts on the index page.
What we came up with
Well see for yourselves! Today we launched Writersroom. This showcases the basic design on which we'll add new features and functionality as we upgrade around 125 blogs over the next few months. I'd love to hear what you think and in particular if there are bits that you particularly like or where we might make further improvements.
Each blog has the option to choose a dark or light background depending on their branding. There is then an option to add a default theme which will automatically apply pre-defined styles (see images above and below). Alternatively, for blogs with an established look and feel, there is an option to include a navigation bar (for those blogs which form part of websites) and coloured banner or background image, as well as options to change the colours for headings, links and sidebar modules. All of these styles will be automatically inherited for blogs which relate to television or radio programmes.
The default 'Corporate' theme applied to a blog post on a light background and an individual author page on a dark background. The 'lively' theme is shown at the top of this post.
The feedback from our research was that users don't like to scroll down the page too much and were put off by long posts on the index page. Therefore, the index page now consists of 1200 character summaries of the three most recent posts for a blog (including any images, video, or audio). Having reviewed the lengths of posts across blogs we decided that this was the optimum amount of content to give you enough context to choose whether to read more of the post and click through, or else to quickly move on to the next one. These three posts are followed by shorter summaries (600 characters) of the next seven posts. This puts the emphasis on the recent content but also allows you to easily click through to slightly older post which you might have missed.
Our research told us that people preferred us to refer to "tags" instead of "categories". We looked at how the categories had been used across the various blogs and found that multiple variations of the same term were being used. These were painstakingly reviewed and reduced from 4000 to 900 meaningful terms which can be used consistently by all blogs and added to where required. This makes it possible in the future for you to see pages displaying content from all blogs relating to a specific tag.
The individual author and tag pages also have a summary of the latest post, plus on the author page there is space for a larger image and description of the author so you know who they are.
The new comments module in GEL includes an Editor's picks functionality which allows BBC staff to highlight particularly interesting comments. You can make comments of up to 1000 characters (in line with the rest of BBC Online). Additionally, you can rate other people's comments as well as organise your view of the comments associated with a post either in order of rating or how recent they are.
What is next?
As well as upgrading the remaining BBC blogs in the new system there are quite a few new features which we plan to introduce along the way.
So far our plans include:
- tag clouds to surface the most popular tags
- a module to highlight the most read, shared and commented posts for a blog
- a module which suggests other posts you might be interested in based on the number of shared tags
- the ability to associate a particular blog post with a programme episode or clip so that the link to the post appears on the relevant episode page
I would love to hear from you with any ideas for features you would like which we might have missed so please do leave your comments below.Jessica Shiel is Product Manager for Social Publishing Services, BBC Future Media