Herding Digital Cats - Pt 2
Or, Ten Years of Information Architecture at the BBC
This post is part of the tenth birthday celebrations of bbc.co.uk
The BBC has two domains in use for public service content - http://www.bbc.co.uk and http://news.bbc.co.uk. It ended up that way more by accident than design. Why not, for example, http://radio1.bbc.co.uk or http://eastenders.bbc.co.uk. Or, for that matter, why not just radio1.co.uk?
Promoting everything on TV and Radio with the mantra "Bee bee cee dot co dot ukay slash whatever" implies that the site is one, rather than a collection of mini-sites. Other UK broadcasters have chosen a different path, using a selection of content or channel specific top level domains like skysports.com, news.five.tv, channel4radio.com and so on.
If you promote one URL - bbc.co.uk - then as a consequence you have to put something for everyone on the front door. Initial homepages for the fledgling BBC web services in 1997 were graphic heavy, and had content areas very much classified by the departments that made them. The labels are not terribly intuitive for the user.
Looking back on it now, I have no concept of what I would actually get if I clicked the link labelled "Technical Services", and why that would be any different from the link labelled "IT" on the other side of the page.
By 1998, the BBC homepage had changed to feature around 21 distinctive categories in the left-hand navigation, and this number stayed pretty static. Some of those categories reflected locations and topics, but some of them still primarily reflected the name of the BBC department who had made the pages.
This volume of BBC content online grew and grew. By 2001, the relaunched homepage - now under the BBCi brand - had 21 primary categories with 68 sub-category links.
When a shot of the 2007 BBC homepage design was leaked on Flickr, Matt Jones, who has done a lot of fantastic design work at the BBC over the years, picked 2002 out as his BBC homepage design "classic".
It was the product of a lengthy and engaging design process, which was compiled into a book called The Glass Wall.
(You can download that as an 8meg PDF here, and it gives a great insight into how the page came about.)
The 2002 vintage still had an over-abundance of links, though, and a 2004 re-design didn't exactly get the situation under control - the categories were reduced to 12, but there were still 60 sub-category links listed.
I can't tell you how many phone calls I used to field from producers keen to see a link to their site just squeezed into the available pixels underneath their parent category. My answer was always the same - the categories were chosen following card-sorting exercises with groups of users, and I wasn't messing with them.
The problem though is almost intractable, and is summed up by some of the audience research carried out for Philip Graf's 2004 review of BBC Online for the DCMS:
"The review's audience research presented some reservations about the design and ease of navigation from the BBC Online home page. Users, other than the very inexperienced, tend to be goal orientated, seeking to find a specific service or information as quickly as possible, but members of the public found the BBC Online homepage too cluttered and that it did not adequately serve as a guide to the rest of BBC Online."
People want to find exactly what they want on the homepage, and everything else to them is just "clutter"; yet the page has always had to cater for everyone using it as the front door to the site, and to showcase the breadth of the BBC's service. As ex-homepage picture editor Andrew Webb once put it when talking about re-designing the homepage:
"Consider how we'd handle say the World Cup, if you could have all the BBC entire World Cup output at your fingertips.. Now think that at the same time Wimbledon is on, and there's a dozen other things happening like the Chelsea flower show or local elections, all of these have past and live BBC output.. and people might want all, some or none of these things in different sizes and ways, from live HD video right down to portable sized chunks. And consider that ancillary content is now being generated, so there's world cup blogs, head gardener blogs, interactive guides, player information, and a billion other things... Makes your head hurt sometimes!"
The new 2007 homepage design (still in beta) tries to address this a little by letting the users choose and drag around what is important to them. At the time of writing there's already lively feedback about the design happening on Richard Titus' post for this blog. It will be interesting to watch the reactions develop as people get used to the page.
Martin Belam is a former Senior Development Producer, New Media