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Roger Bolton talks to Steve Herrmann about the redesigned news homepage

Friday 23 July 2010, 14:55

Roger Bolton Roger Bolton

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BBC News homepage

Editor's note: this week's item from Feedback, Radio 4's accountability programme, concerns the redesign of one of the BBC's biggest web sites - SB.

Most of the comments - OK, complaints - we get on Feedback are about programmes (and of course trails, and grammar and pronunciation and presenters like Jonathan Ross and the attempted execution of 6 Music, and management pay, and travel expenses!).

Before the beginning of this month I would have said that I couldn't remember when we last had a complaint about the BBC News website. Like so many of you, I've been a great fan, and my family, and particularly my student daughters, have found the site invaluable not least for the context it provides to foreign news stories.

Now all seems to have changed utterly with what Steve Hermann the editor of the BBC News website calls "the biggest rethink of the design of the site since 2003."

As Mr Hermann said on the News Editors blog "Most of you commenting here... have been critical." Well here at Feedback all the correspondence we have received has been critical. The concerns range from alleged difficulties of navigation, wastage of space, the new banner which is "immoveable", "ridiculous classification" and unwanted ads. Faced with this barrage of criticism we asked Steve Herrmann to come onto Feedback and I began our interview by asking him why he believed such a major revamp was necessary:

So please keep letting Mr Hermann and Feedback know what you think about the redesign and any tweaks that may be made. By the way next week on Feedback I'll be talking to Kirsty Young about how she prepares for her Desert Island Discs interviews and trying to discover if she dislikes any of the guests, and we hope someone from the Today programme will be coming on to talk about the ever-shortening weather forecasts at 3 minutes to 8. No, make that 2 minutes to 8. No...

Roger Bolton presents Feedback on BBC Radio 4

  • Listen again to the whole programme, get in touch with Feedback, find out how to join the listener panel or subscribe to the podcast on the Feedback web page.
  • Visit the BBC News web site and see the new design for yourself.

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  • rate this
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    Comment number 1.

    You interviewed the wrong person, Roger. Try Miranda Cresswell, SVP of bbc.com, and you'll get the real story.

    Russ

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    Comment number 2.

    Did Steve forget to mention that the website had been redesigned in order to allow for advertisements to be shown in the USA to pay for the new Washington bureau?

    No? Shame about that. It makes things much clearer when you realise that the UK licence payer has funded the website redesign so that bbc.com can support itself. We in the UK are left with an unwanted and dumbed-down news website, so that the USA can be given their own newsroom!

    This is an excellent quote from post 365 of Steve's no5 blog:

    "As far as I'm concerned the new site, which has shown some improvement, still does not meet my needs so I have given up using the BBC News site and have turned to others that better satisfy my needs and preference.

    "Now before anybody stereotypes me as someone who doesn't like change let them contemplate the fact that in adopting this course I am changing. They might also reflect on the fact that it possibly indicates I'm a person who is capable of handling fairly tightly packed information on a page and don't need a lightweight page suitable for those without the capacity to process information because of a limited attention span."

    My conclusion is that the BBC news website has changed into a magazine. It's not a news site any more.

  • rate this
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    Comment number 3.

    Steve Hermann just can't admit any mistake and this interview confirms it.

    He was told the navigation is worse and then asked "do you accept there is a problem?" His reply....."I accept that is the most fundamental thing of all."

    If they paid most attention to navigation and ease of use, how did they get it so wrong?

    Personally I love it when things change, get updated and made better. So saying I dislike the new site because we don't like change sounds very patronising. The new site is disliked because it has taken many steps backwards in usability, navigation and compactness. In fact pretty much every point Steve said they tried to improve they in fact made worse.

    It was changed for the sake of changing it along with supporting oversea users. Exactly the wrong reasons.

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    Comment number 4.

    Once again, a Radio 4 presenter proves their ability to interrupt someone mid-explanation. More regularly this occurs with politicians, who are trained in such matters; but in this occasion it is directed at a website editor who undoubtedly doesn't have the same experience. Questions should be raised, aye; but to mockingly interrupt explanation just shows lack of courtesy.

  • rate this
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    Comment number 5.

    Greg Tyler wrote "Once again, a Radio 4 presenter proves their ability to interrupt someone mid-explanation."

    He did what a good interviewer would do when someone tries to dodge a question and prattles on explaining how they are right and everyone else is wrong.

    Although I feel Steve Hermann got off lightly in this interview, I feel I have to support Mr Bolton in respect to your comment.

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    Comment number 6.

    Please, please, please! Can someone knock some (figurative) sense into Steve? His high handed arrogance is absolutely breathtaking. The details of why the news website is such a dogs dinner now have been discussed ad nauseum in the HYS blogs, so I'm not going to go into detail here. The new website is a disaster. I've just registered a formal complaint with the BBC over this mess - something I've never done before. I suspect many others are doing the same.
    I'm no longer visiting the BBC news website; it's just too awful to use.
    I also feel less inclined to defend the licence fee now because of this...

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    Comment number 7.

    5 Greg Tyler

    Do you not think the interruption was deserved ?

    Was it not necessary and fair to point out it is not what Steve Herrman thinks that matters here, it is what so many of us think that is the point.

    With the way he avoided almost everything Steve Herrman is as consumate at not answering the question as any politician I have ever heard.

    Dont think he needs protecting my friend.

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    Comment number 8.

    Good interview, Mr Bolton. It seems as though Steve Herrmann believes that all negative criticism is requesting the site being reverted to how it was. Perhaps he could consider that actually, of course change can be a great thing but the website in its current state has some fundamental design flaws that should never have been put into place to begin with.

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    Comment number 9.

    Mr Hermann: "If we feel there are elements that aren't quite right; so to give you an example."
    Mr Bolton (Interrupting): "No sorry, you say 'we feel' [...] How long do [the users] have to protest before you alter things?"

    See, I feel that here Mr Bolton is merely trying to make the point that he is in-tune with the listeners and understands where they're coming from, at the expense of content. Mr Hermann is about to explain some details of things that have been changed after user feedback, which would undoubtedly be useful information. But he is interrupted and then asked what people have to do for things to be altered.

    So Mr Hermann is basically told to stop explaining where changes have been made to meet feedback, and asked to explain where changes will be made to meet feedback; implying that no feedback has yet been addressed.

    I don't see how stopping people from providing explanation on a programme which demands it is "what a good interviewer would do". In this situation, a good interviewer would let the public hear what has been done by Mr Hermann and his team to meet the criticisms. There seems to be a modern habit of getting guests in to talk and then just speaking over the top of them.

    As for whether the interruption was correct, I think it was just a misunderstanding (which, as I say, isn't unreasonable for someone not used to this sort of situation). As I see it, Mr Hermann was meaning that "Not all user feedback can be addressed, since some of it conflicts. Hence we can't address everything and have to select what we think is viable feedback." I'm sure we can all appreciate this angle. But he was interpreted as meaning "We only address things that we think are important and ignore the public."

    If you can't appreciate "that angle", search the web for "CollegeHumor Windows 7 Parody" - it's an excellent (if exaggerated) example of why not all public feedback can be addressed.

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    Comment number 10.

    Roger thank you for trying to get this debacle aired.

    Ordinary users like myself in their thoudands are complaining.

    Computer design experts are complaining.

    Many are offering homemade tweaks to make the site better!!!! No use to me I wouldnt know how to install them.

    I am not going to list all the things that I find wrong with it, from the USA market driver to the awful in your face design to the hopeless navigation or the inferior news quality that has coincided but, just go yourself to the Have Your Say page still in the old format and see how much quicker and easier it is to use.

    I have moved to Yahoo a not dissimilar design to the new site,but easier on the eye and no scrolling and minimal clicking. Just like the old Beeb site used to be. Oh and news updated much quicker than the BBC site, (an unexpected bonus).

    Please keep the pressure on.

  • rate this
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    Comment number 11.

    9 Greg Tyler

    I have no problem with the way you see it, it is a valid opinion.

    It is my opinion that Roger had sussed he had an evader the other side of the table and was doing his best to get to the nitty gritty of how the thousands of complaints were going to be addressed.

    I think both our positions are valid.

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    Comment number 12.

    Steve Herrmann's responses in the interview mirror his comments on his blog posts; he's entirely failed to answer the specific and detailed criticisms about style, navigation, extraneous information, etc, that have been made by thousands of people. He says "we'll continue to ask people what they think of the redesign" but appears oblivious to the fact that a huge number of viewers/readers have already pointed out exactly what they think of the new layout, how difficult they find it to navigate, the paucity of information and why the site now doesn't work. To imply that the majority are Luddites who only want to go back to the old design is to belittle all those who have commented; the suggestions of returning to the previous design have been made mainly in despair, as the old design worked and the new one doesn't.

    The bbc.com story linked above strongly suggests that the redesign has been motivated at least in large part by the need to include advertising (on international versions not visible in the UK) as a way of allowing BBC Worldwide to pay for a significant part of the BBC's US news operation. If the BBC wants support from viewers and listeners while attacks from commercial news suppliers increase and become ever more vocal, then transparency in its own dealings is absolutely essential: if the redesign is commercially-driven, Steve Herrmann should admit it.

    It looks as though a few small tweaks have been made to the News home page, but most issues raised in the comments have been completely ignored. Mr Herrmann would do his own credibility -- and that of the BBC -- a great deal of good if he would for once say something like "yes, we got it wrong; we've listened to what you say and have changed/are changing X, Y and Z in the light of your comments; sorry." If he showed some respect for the audience (instead of taking the line that "we know what we're doing, you have to change your behaviour and you don't know what you're talking about" that he's pursued so far), then he might begin to correct what at present looks like a monumental PR cock-up on the BBC's part.

    I hope Feedback will pursue this story and try to hold Mr Herrmann to account again in future editions.

  • rate this
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    Comment number 13.

    Thanks for doing this interview, Roger, although I note Steve Hermann is still as unapologetic as ever. It's a good interview nonetheless.

    Personally I think the new BBC News site is a mess, and overall the previous site was better - which is why I can appreciate that many of the comments are asking for a return to the old. As a software developer, however, I also understand that things aren't always that easy.

    What really annoys me is that Steve Hermann is doing the managerial equivalent of sticking his fingers in his ears and going "la la la" whenever he hears a complaint. There are plenty of improvements that can be made to the new site without "rolling back" to the old. Yet Steve sits on his hands telling anyone who complains that they are wrong and he is right. I notice that he started off promoting the new site's use of pictures and video - and it is true that these are better on the new site. I don't think that many users would dispute that, assuming that they can find these pages! However these features don't seem to be the cause of complaints - so this was a bit of wilful misdirection by Steve here, I think.

    It's the new layout of the site and navigation that seem to cause many people problems, myself included, and it's these issues that Steve seems to be reluctant to fix. There is a great deal of speculation that this is due to much of the site being designed around advertising for non-UK readers.

    In brief, my problems with the site are mainly that the new changes make it harder both to find the news I'm interested in (lots of scrolling is required to get around the index pages, for example), and if I do find a news article of interest, it's not an easy read - the layout is messy, with too much whitespace and variable column size...

    ...which is often narrowed
    down to one really thin (with something else over here) (and here)
    column which just make
    me want to give up
    and go elsewhere,
    quite frankly.

    Much of these layout issues could be readily sorted out, if it wasn't for Steve Herrmann's intransigent attitude. I do hope that he does relent soon though - many readers will thank him for it if he does.

    An apology for getting things so wrong in the first place would also be welcome, but somehow, I just can't see one coming from Mr Herrmann.

    Thanks once again for the interview.


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    Comment number 14.

    It is such a tragedy - Steve has broken one of the best sites on the web - on the old site in 2s you could get a view of all the key stories 6 or 7 per area and focus on what interested you. Now someone at the beeb is deciding what is important and not letting me make that choice as I can only see 6 or 7 stories in total. It has become a magazine not a news site. The fonts and graphics can be fixed but the mindset is what is really broken as seen by the arrogance of the responses.

    We don't want facebook, twitter, loads of links and videos - we want simple, factual, unbiased (well most of the time), news....

    I understand you can't rollback as you changed content management system at the same time (why!!) but please rememember what we want

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    Comment number 15.

    I am concerned about the lack of transparency in the reasons for this disaster and the total avoidance of any explanation of both the internal and external costs involved in this revamp. Although more in the media are now asking questions (thanks Feedback for your efforts!) there is still complete silence from the BBC Executive and even officially logged complaints are not being acknowledged or recognised. Time for the usually weak and ineffective BBC Trust to become involved I feel. Perhaps they could actually show some mettle for once.

  • rate this
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    Comment number 16.

    Roger

    On Steve Herrmann's blog 5 on the new layout of the BBC News website I wrote the following, however upon reflection I truly have no realistic hope that he will either a)pay it any attention or b) reconsider his ridiculously stoic stance .... and so I hope and think that it will be of more use here:

    Steve

    I have read and commented on each of your previous four blogs on this subject.

    I do not need to re-read your spurious justifications and reasoning behind the changes again, and merely regurgitating them is both counter productive and, frankly, insulting.

    Neither do I need to read your inglorious FAQ section because it is nothing but further self justification.

    I have asked before, and I ask again, why can you not admit that you are wrong to have carried out theses changes, especially in the way that you have done so?

    The new site is less appealing, not more
    The new site is less accessible, not more
    The new site is messy, not tidier
    The new site is less intuitive to use, not more

    I could go on, but what irks me the most is your thoroughly patronising responses to clear and unequivocal criticism from the huge, not to say vast, majority of your correspondents here.

    It is overall a failed revision of the site, and I urge you to reconsider.

    Finally, I think it is now long overdue that you place a vote button on the site asking simply 'do you prefer this or the previous design'?

    That, once and for all will give you the feedback that you appear to be working so hard to simply ignore.

    Or do you not dare to do that?

  • rate this
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    Comment number 17.

    @Rab-Cambs: So this is a case of "Because you haven't sorted and responded to every one of the thousands of responses yet, whilst still being lead editor of an international News website, I feel subjugated and so am going to ignore the response that you do post in lieu of posting the same complaints over and over again"?

    @Ampersand2: Mr Herrmann failed to answer details and specifics because the interviewer wouldn't let him, with his interruptions. We ask so much of this guy and then, when given the chance to explain things, he's given four minutes in which when he says "let me give some examples" he's silenced for an unrelated and misguided point. And this, of course, is entirely Mr Hermann's fault.

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    Comment number 18.

    Thank you for tackling Steve Herrmann over the BBC news website vandalism. Once again BBC managers seem to want to justify their decisions and sidestep the deafening negative howl of protest from the people who pay their salaries and use their product. Mr Herrmann said he was keeping an eye on the website stats. Well so are we. The site stats show a BIG drop in visits and in how long those visitors stay at the site. I would have liked to hear Mr Herrmann to answer questions about tracking scripts, and also about the way in which the design was driven by the need to serve ads on bbc.com over in the US. Failing to discuss this was, to say the least, disingenuous. But then I'm just a listener. And Mr Herrmann is after all, a mighty and omniscient BBC executive. So he MUST be right, even if the statistics prove him wrong. It's a familiar theme on Feedback interviews.
    I don't really care what your designers (and ad sales people at bbc.com) say. When you get this sort of massive negative feedback from users, you need to take the message on board - YOU'VE GOT IT WRONG. SAY SORRY AND CHANGE IT. No tracking. Less scrolling to get us "over the fold". Proper paragraphs like journalists ought to be writing. No big black maps in the middle. Left hand margins. And CSS scripts that know what fonts go where (Helvetica Neue on PCs - shame on you!). Stories with some content. Reversible consistent navigation. Let bbc.com sort out their own advert problems and leave the UK news site alone. The BBC must put UK license payers first.

  • rate this
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    Comment number 19.

    That the site redesign is a total disaster is obvious to anyone with any common sense. It goes against accepted good webpage design in so many ways that it is really a joke. This shows immediately when attempting to use it... the terrible layout, wasted space, unreability, poor font choice, confusing and inefficient navigation... the list goes on. From a visual design aspect, any amateur learning webpage design for the first time would do better. Unfortunately the Site Editor is the kind of person who is oblivious to anything other than their own ideas. Fine when they get things right and know what they are doing. A great problem when they are incompetent to make those judgements. Any sensible and competent person would never have placed such a mess into production; indeed they would never have built such code in the first place.

    Obviously there is some hidden agenda at work here (the serving of adverts abroad has been mentioned.) It is amazing to me that higher management have not stepped in long before now and ordered an immediate reversion of the site. The longer this rambling mess stays online the more the image of the BBC is tarnished.

    There will always be a tiny proportion of people who see improvement in a forced change, when that change to all others is a retrograde step. These few can cause great damage and inconvenience to the majority if they are given a free hand. Maybe this is the case here?

    If any good comes out of this it will be that tutors now have a perfect example to demonstrate, in their classes, of 1. the result of "change for change's sake" and 2. how NOT to design a website, and the result of ignoring long established rules when doing so. This new site version is a text-book example of both!

  • rate this
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    Comment number 20.

    17. At 10:36pm on 23 Jul 2010, Greg Tyler wrote:

    Mr Herrmann failed to answer details and specifics because the interviewer wouldn't let him, with his interruptions. We ask so much of this guy and then, when given the chance to explain things, he's given four minutes in which when he says "let me give some examples" he's silenced for an unrelated and misguided point.


    Mr Herrmann has and has had ample opportunities to introduce any new, potentially useful information on any future developments of the BBC News website, on his own blog without the need to wait for an interview. He is clearly not using his blog as effectively as he could have, unless he purposely chose to neglect the followers of his blog.

    Listening to the interview and hearing him rehashing the same old stuff that has been in the public domain for ten days (on his blog), I doubt he had any intention to volunteer any new details. If indeed he had, he has multiple avenues, available to him, to do so now.

    The point he is making about some test users who could not tell the difference between old and new site navigation structure/design/whatever unless it was pointed to them is simply hilarious. Where did they do the user testing - in the nursery?

 

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