Creating the BBC Academy Website

Head of Online, BBC Academy

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Very often, our view of what we do from within an organisation can be very different from the view of those outside. Some organisations, particularly mature ones, create a language and frame of reference for their activities which can, at best, be opaque to customers and users and, at worst, irrelevant. What seems obvious on the inside is often obscure from the outside. Overcoming this obstacle was, probably, the single biggest challenge in designing and producing the new BBC Academy website. The site launches officially today, which feels like a good time to share some of our development lessons.

The BBC Academy exists to manage the training and development of BBC staff and also to contribute to the development of skills and standards of the broadcast industry more generally. These are vital objectives for the BBC but less immediately obvious to those outside the corporation who are primarily interested in developing their careers in the UK media. In creating the new site, we needed to create a product which supports what these users want without lecturing them about it.

The Academy website on tablet and mobile

There is an enormous demand for advice and guidance from the experienced and expert practitioners within and around the BBC. The Academy role, through the website, is to share that experience and expertise as widely as possible. We aim to use the site to tell the stories of BBC journalism, production and technology from the point of view of the practitioners. Whether they be covering the birth of a royal baby, creating weekly radio satire or supporting coverage of the Olympic torch relay. There is an interesting balance to be struck here. Users expect a single BBC view (that clarity of external perspective) and also a specialist knowledge and understanding. The ways of working language and process of different parts of the BBC are importantly different. Our site needs to be simply organised and navigable as one BBC Academy product yet allow those specialist and cultural notes to be clearly heard through the editorial teams. I think we have struck that balance quite well, following some spirited debate about where the point of balance lies.

Creating a single site from the four editorial functions has also required a new way of working on the publishing effort. Where previously the College of Production and College of Journalism (to be joined by the newly unveiled College of Technology) worked alongside each other but on separate sites, all are now using the same instance of the CMS (the BBC iSite platform) and the same publishing toolset (including the iBroadcast media management tools). The College of Technology section raised the additional challenge of migrating existing content from an intranet platform – the discontinued Alterian Immediacy system. As a result, significant savings have been made on running the site and on managing the product in one place. Throughout the project a great deal of time and effort has been spent across the editorial teams to share objectives, user priorities and ways of working as the new singular machine moved into gear. There is now a stronger and clearer understanding across the Academy teams with the opportunity to more easily share content and reflect each other’s expertise to users.

The fourth editorial strand has been created anew as part of the new product in the form of the Work in Broadcast section. Our social media activity, in this case mainly the @bbctrainees Twitter account, sends clear signals about what people want from the Academy. Much of the activity in this community focuses on finding work and progressing in a career – “getting in and getting on”. In response to this, we now offer stories and job profiles for the large population of those who will make up the future workforce of the BBC and in the industry. This is a critical gap in the media learning landscape, as yet unfilled by other organisations.

One area where the entire team has learned significant lessons is in creating a ‘mobile first’ product. Much has been written about this topic across the web space (not least by our own contributors) and we quickly discovered the difference between theory and practice. As with many, if not most, publishing operations, most of us work at a desktop with a keyboard, mouse and screen. We are most familiar with that experience and tend to have a mental image of our content and products from that point of view. We have had to learn to leave these behind in developing the new site. Mobile first meant all the design, navigation and content had to work as well on a handset as our desktops. The importance of imagery and photography quickly came to the fore. Impatient mobile users will swiftly swipe through pages, only pausing to alight on arresting and interesting images. The bar for photography is higher in this world and picture editing is a more important skill than it was (with all due apologies to veteran picture editors out there).

Data and user input was crucial to steering the sprints of what was an agile project. A mix of user feedback, user testing and site usage analytics was fundamental in shaping our objectives of the new product. The results of user testing helped us referee the discussion of what should and should not be a priority. Whatever our internal concerns, it was always clear which data counted the most and users had the upper hand.

Powerful old habits had to be broken as we reviewed designs and user interface options. The end result has been quite liberating, however and has renewed our focus on the content and the ultimate payoff the articles, video and audio that really house the value of the site. We also became quite used to debating the positioning of ‘the hamburger’ (the three lines on the tabs in the site's navigation).

As with most changes of technology, the build of the tools is really only one part of the real change. For us the lessons we have learned about the value of a single product with multiple, expert voices are the real value. Whilst we are really pleased with the resulting product and the project that delivered it, we are most pleased that our users see this as a simple and obvious development of the Academy service online. Essentially, we don’t want them to think as hard about it as we do.

User feedback has been essential to our development so far, so please do tell us what you think of our efforts either via the site itself or in the comments below.

Myles Runham is Head of Online, BBC Academy

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