User experience and design in BBC Playlister: how to be David Fincher

Senior UX desiger

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BBC Playlister was launched last October and I am going to give you some insight on how we designed the service. But before I start, I want to share with you the inspiration I get from movies.

BBC Playlister was launched last October

I love Se7en. I love Fight Club. I love the works of David Fincher. Here is a quote from an interview in the New York Times, which sums up why I adore his films.

‘Mr Fincher behaves, in short, like an indie filmmaker, turning out movies that are original and idiosyncratic, and yet he works for studios and with big budgets.’

Having the best of both worlds, isn’t it great?

When I started working on Playlister, I asked myself how we could do things in a different way. The quote from this interview came to mind. Yes, we want to behave like Mr Fincher. We want to build something with an indie startup spirit yet using the resources of the BBC.

Small and big are opposites; lean and great are not.


Embrace Lean UX: User Experience (UX) design is not just about the deliverables: wireframes, site maps, flow diagrams and specification. It is about creating a delightful experience for users. I am not the kind of designer who sits inside a black box for 2 weeks and then drops a pixel-perfect design in front of the developers.

How did we start the design and development process? For the first few months, we tried to have a very short iterative cycle. Our Technical Lead, Patrick Sinclair, and I formed a 2-man team. We sat next to each other and worked together. There were no daily standups, weekly grooming or monthly retrospectives.

We focused on the core concept and tried to get it right. I didn’t create loads of formal UX deliverables. But I still killed a lot of trees by making quick sketches. We built a prototype to validate ideas and user journeys but not with any high fidelity visual design. Stakeholders can quickly visualise the potential of the product.

It’s lean and quick.

Early prototype to validate core concept

We love prototyping: If a picture is worth 1000 words, a prototype is worth 1000 meetings. So we built many prototypes.

To make BBC Playlister work, we needed to join a few dots behind the scene: Is the real time track information from radio stations good enough? Can we match the tracks with other 3rd party music services?

There is the an analytic tool built by Kite to check the quality of the ‘now playing’ track information. A Music Match prototype was built by BBC R&D / Metabroadcast to see how tracks are being matched with external music services. We also built several lo-fi prototypes, i.e. lightweight Omnigraffle ones and paper ones.

Music Match is an experiment from BBC R&D

We especially love lo-fi prototyping. Instead of spending hours and hours to code, we use our hand, paper and scissors. It is lean, flexible and disposable. More important is that when we did audience testings, users were more relaxed with paper prototypes than the screen.

We needed to build, measure and learn quickly.

We love paper prototypes

Lean guerrilla testing machine: Radio & Music Product Value No. 1 – Users’ needs are greater than everything else. We love users’ feedback. We like to validate with the real world, so we do user testing.

We tend to do bigger scale user testings at the beginning or the end of our product cycle. For example, we commissioned the research company Papa to do formative user research to see if our audience like the main offers: Remember, Recommend and Replay of Playlister. After Playlister was out of the beta phase, we did a design research involving a 10-day diary session and lab user testing.

But in between, we did a few smaller, lightweight guerrilla user testings. We tried to keep the process as lean as possible: We did them in house with the help of our design research team, Amelia Still and Sylwia Frankowska-Takhari . We used lo-fi design research techniques, like paper prototyping.

Remember that I mentioned: Build, measure and learn quickly? Guerrilla testing allows us to measure and learn fast and regularly.


Have a voice: UX is not just about interaction pattern and aesthetics. It is also about emotion and the personality of the product. We think copy is an important part of the UX, so we worked with our copywriter Edd White quite early in the design process.

We established a ‘tone of voice’ for Playlister with our marketing team and Edd before we launched anything. Playlister is a new product, it is not as established as BBC iPlayer. If Playlister is a person, we think of her as iPlayer’s impish younger sibling.

Another track from Santas sack

Playlister is young and green. We dressed it to be visually refreshing to attract new audiences, particularly the new digital generation. So we revisited the GEL principles and made sure Playlister is compelling and distinctive.

For example when we designed the Presenter Playlist Index Page, we wanted to approach it differently. The page was intended to promote a few presenters and showcase the tracks they added. The requirement was pretty straightforward but we still thought there was potential to design something nice. We had a few ideas but finally thought the parallax scrolling idea could be the one: it allowed us to use bold imagery and with amazing interaction details.

Presenter Playlist Index Page

On top of a functional, reliable and usable service, we hope the emotional design of the personality layer gives the user a rewarding experience.

Not territorial: ‘We are one BBC; great things happen when we work together.’ It is written on every BBC Staff ID badge.

BBC values

Playlister is a service that works across the BBC. It focuses on radio, with the support of the teams in Personalisation and Social Platform and BBC iD, extended with touchpoints on TV programme’s pages.

But One BBC is not alone: there is a whole big world outside.

Internet, smartphone and tablet: generations are growing up with these devices. Music lovers are changing how they consume music. So we worked with other products and platforms: Spotify, Deezer and YouTube.

We collaborated with teams from outside the BBC. We tried to understand each others ecosystem and exchanged design ideas to make sure we get the best of both.

Everyone wins if we are not territorial: More audiences are signing in with BBC iD; younger audiences are using the new digital services and can discover recommendations and content from the BBC.

Everyone is happy.

BBC Playlister on Spotify

One Product Team: We are not a separate group of designers, gang of developers, bunch of testers, with a king product owner, who only meet each other when it is needed.

We sit together as a team. We talk and play everyday. And we all love what we are building.

Wai-Tai Li is a Senior User Experience Designer in BBC Future Media who led the user experience and design of BBC Playlister. In the office, he drinks tea with two tea bags, and milk.

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