BBC Sport: Strategy, User Testing, and Implementation
BBC Sport homepage
My name is Neil Hall and I work with Cait O'Riordan at BBC Future Media. Based in Salford, I am the product manager specifically responsible for the BBC Sport website. Working with our editorial colleagues at BBC Sport, I led the project team who delivered this relaunch.
In this blog post I am going to explain the strategy behind the changes we have made and how we went about implementing them.
I am going to focus in particular on the role of audience research, feedback and user testing in our development of the new site, an issue that has been raised by a number of you in the comments to the earlier blog posts.
The first step was to gain as deep an understanding as possible about the way in which the audience used our current offering and consumed sports content online.
We began by going through all of the existing data we had about people’s usage of the site and added some additional tracking to our pages to monitor specific journeys – for example how people moved from story to story.
We analysed the results of the regular feedback surveys we post on the site, reviewing the thousands of verbatim comments left by our audience to find the common themes.
Finally, we commissioned some qualitative research around the site to watch our users in action on both the BBC and other sport websites during busy sporting days.
This initial grounding of research, coupled with an additional wider study into fans’ consumption of digital content around the 2010 World Cup, led to us to the following conclusions:
Live coverage is king for sport fans – but some of our live content was being missed
While our live text commentary pages proved to be incredibly popular with our audience, many users were missing the full range of live content we offered from live text, video, audio and statistics.
Our research showed that chief among the factors behind this where the layout of key sections, like the Sport homepage, which struggled to promote the full range of live coverage we offered and the deeply contextual navigation. This problem was most acute when there were a number of simultaneous sporting events scheduled, like the previous weekend with the Six Nations taking place alongside the Test cricket and usual programme of football.
The design of our new homepage is specifically targeted at providing a solution for these circumstances. It ensures we can reflect the balance of the best live and news content on the site, as it changes throughout the sporting week.
It should be easier to move between sections on the site and find the best content
One of the seeming paradoxes of our previous site is that while it was generally considered easy to use by our audience, we also received a steady number of comments from users in our surveys about how hard it was to get to specific information across different leagues or sports. I recall one user summed it up neatly by saying “you have to click, click, click to get anything”. We knew we had to make this type of journey faster in the new site.
Our data also showed us that we had relatively little traffic from story to story on the site. As we knew a growing number of users going directly to our news stories via search engines and social media we knew in the redesign we needed to make these pages work harder to promote the best content from across the site.
To do this we have redesigned the promotional links contained in the right hand side of our story pages to give greater prominence to the most relevant associated content and also showcase the best content we have on any particular sport in the “More From…” area. In the coming months, we will also deliver a new footer for the Sport site’s pages that will showcase the editorially selected content highlights from the past few days and the items ‘most viewed’ by our audience.
We should do more to encourage engagement and better reflect the passion of sports fans
One of the common themes that emerged from analysis of our audience’s feedback was that the design of the site was beginning to look tired and out-of-date, this theme became more pronounced after the refresh of the News website with some users even asking us when the Sport site was going to be updated.
In conjunction with this, we knew that some of our users considered the site to be bland in comparison to some of the other sport sites in the market.
We will be launching comments on our news stories in the near future too, while the inclusion of Share Tools that allow people to post links to our content on social networks mean that it is now easier for our content to be shared and talked about it than it was before.
This research gave us a solid base to pin the foundations of the relaunch upon, and at this point our design team came into their own. If you are interested in finding out more about this process our Creative Director Scott Byrne-Fraser has blogged about it.
This refresh has been about more than just a change to the audience-facing proposition. From the start of the project it was our aim to drive efficiencies on both the editorial side in terms of content management and from a development perspective.
To that effect, we have significantly refreshed our technology infrastructure allowing us to deliver better services for less cost, enabling us to add to the desktop site easily in frequent small steps and making it much simpler to get the best BBC Sport content available on multiple devices.
It was clear from the outset what a major undertaking this would be. There were already six major systems involved in delivering the BBC Sport website, each containing an enormous amount of invaluable domain and business logic.
The biggest changes we have made involved us building on the dynamic semantic publishing work we did for the 2010 World Cup and the continued migration to the BBC’s dynamic web application platform.
These changes mean that Sport content can be more flexibly used – for example, combined with other content in new and interesting ways like our Live Scores and Football Tables pages.
There will be more to come on this blog about the technical side of this project in the coming weeks.
Validating the New Design
Working in parallel to this back-end technical work, the designs for the new site soon began to take shape.
Our user experience design team began by producing ‘a concept car’ version of the new site and rapid prototypes of the key new features were shown to groups of users and then refined to become something much closer to the site you see today.
From this point onwards, we took a number of steps to validate this design with our wider audience before we began to build the new-look site.
Initial quantitative testing was undertaken with more than 1,000 UK and International users of the BBC site to ascertain indicative insights about the look, feel and content of the proposed site designs.
This peek at our new-look was well received with most users preferring it to the existing site so we moved on to building a high-fidelity prototype of it to test in-depth with users in London and Manchester.
We always recruit a mix of people to participate in these sessions – men and women, various education levels and employment types, some with cognitive/perceptual impairments, and with varying levels of interest in sport – from our most loyal users to those that only visit sports sites for major events.
This piece of research was incredibly informative for us. We watched from behind the two-way mirror as people got to grips with the new site and its layout.
It highlighted some pinch points for us around specific user journeys on the site – for example, the way in which people used the navigation and the layout of indexes - early enough in the process that we were able to make changes ahead of building the final proposition.
After our round of improvements to the prototype we re-tested it again with more sport website users across the UK and once we were confident in our design we pushed on with building the site.
In the illustrations below you can see how some of the site’s features evolved based on our rounds of user testing:
An early version of the navigation that featured both a mix of sports and events, above the final design
Creating an effective horizontal navigation that allowed people to quickly access all their favourite sections of the site was one of the fundamental challenges of this project.
In the designs above you can see an early version of the navigation (with a placeholder header) directly above the navigation you can see on the site today.
You can see that we proposed a mixed model of events and sports in there, with a link to Live Scores before the More Sports drop down on the right hand side.
The results of the user testing made it clear that having a Live Scores link next to More Sports meant many people were missing the More Sports drop down – while the mixed economy of events and sports was confusing people.
In the second version we tested, we removed the Live Scores link and subtly tweaked the arrow next to More Sports to make it clearer that this was a drop down menu.
Removing the Live Scores link afforded us more room on the left of the navigation that we used to consistently promote the most popular sport pages, leaving the Olympics as the only ‘event’ in there.
These small changes had a big impact with our respondents in the second round of testing easily finding the More Sports link and navigating around the site as we had hoped.
The Football Index
The shade of yellow and the content layout have been big talking points in comments on these blog posts. Both were mentioned in our early round of user testing.
In these designs you can see an early version of the Football index alongside the later version we tested that is much closer to what you see on the site now.
You can see that to start with we had a much brighter yellow in our header that was more closely aligned to the shade used in the BBC Sport TV branding.
In our first round of testing this was highlighted as an issue and we toned it down for the second round of research we conducted, where the colour we launched the site with was used and barely commented on by our users.
We also simplified the complexity of some of the modules on the page, for example the Comment & Analysis and Video & Audio areas, to help make the layout clearer for our audience.
These simpler modules also had the added benefit of being faster for our team to develop.
With these tweaks made, the Football index tested strongly in our second round of testing. Users were able to easily get to the content they wanted to and there was significant praise for the new-look stats modules in the right-hand side too.
We ensured that people were clear on the news hierarchy of the page, with the top three stories on the left being supplemented by the headlines links in the central column to ensure there were 10-12 headlines in the users’ first screen.
Some of the features you see in the designs did not make our initial scope for launch but you may see them on the site in the future.
The left hand side shows an early version of our football index, which evolved after user feedback to the version on the right
Flexible Promotion on the Front Page
The way in which the audience responded to the flexible promotion of the new front page module was one of the highlights of user testing.
In the designs below you can see a selection of the modes available to our editorial team to best reflect the sporting agenda at any given moment.
The aim of the module is to better reflect the balance of news and live content on the sport site, for example on the left hand side showing a clear top three news stories, while the right shows live events that are occurring at the same time.
Our prototype showed the front page of the site in various different scenarios, from a quiet Tuesday afternoon to a busy live sport day.
With such a bold promotional module we were concerned that the users may not understand the editorial hierarchy of the content in there at the various points of the week.
But users were quick to spot this and many felt the transition between modes and strong use of photography better reflected the feel of a live sport day or major news story.
The use of blue to signify live also went down well, with users understanding what the colour meant after they had completed some sample journeys through the site.
This image shows our early thinking on the range of modes for promoting different content types on the site’s front page
A final phase of quantitative testing took place from December 2011 – January 2012 with 2,000 UK online sport users. The survey evaluated the audience reaction to the site with its findings showing the new designs were seen to have a wide range of content, a modern look and feel and were of high quality.
Reactions to specific content shown were consistently very positive and looking across a number of pages in further depth, results confirmed that the site was easy to use and had a clear layout plus demonstrated the availability of live content.
It's Out There!
At the time of writing it’s about a fortnight since we launched the new site. We are monitoring all of your feedback across the BBC blogs, surveys and social media, in addition to conducting some detailed analysis of our traffic to monitor audience behaviours on the site. Thank you for taking the time to give us your thoughts if you have done so. If not, you can still comment in the survey.
We want to give the new site time to bed down so while we are fixing bugs following our launch we are not planning any immediate major changes.
We will continue to evolve the new site based on audience research, including what you tell us via our various forms of feedback.
Our team has moved onto delivering improvements to the site in fortnightly cycles. We have already delivered solutions for a couple of issues discussed on these pages around the tool bar at the top of the pages and the auto-playing of videos in our live event pages.
We have also launched our Olympics service and there will be much more to come as we build to Olympics 2012.
Neil Hall is the Executive Product Manager for Sport at BBC Future Media