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Upgrading BBC Blogs: Moving to a new blogging platform

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Jessica Shiel Jessica Shiel | 15:44 UK time, Wednesday, 11 January 2012

Example mock ups of the new blogging platform.

The new 'lively' default theme on the new blogs platform, applied to an example blog homepage on a light background and an 'all posts' page on a dark background.

It's been more than five years since the first few BBC blogs were set up in Movable Type and in that time the software has hosted up to four hundred services at any one time.

I have been Product Manager for blogs for the past two years. In that time I have managed a number of changes, such as the previous blogs redesign in Barlesque, the redesign of the blogs homepage and the introduction of various other features such as the new comments module and Sharetools.

For the past year or so I've been working on the latest blog upgrade. This is the most extensive yet as it involves significant changes to the blogs platform as well as look and feel. Today I am announcing the launch of the first blog, Writersroom, which sits on the new platform and represents a fresh design.

This is our proof of concept and the first stage in the process; from here we will begin to upgrade the other blogs as well as adding various new features along the way.

To get to this point has involved a massive collaboration and work from a dedicated development team who had to learn about new technology and systems, our audience research specialists and User Experience and Design team who looked at what is best for you our audience, and editorial stakeholders across the Business who interact with you via blogs on a daily basis and have a wealth of understanding about what you want as well as what they need from a blogging tool.

I'll explain the detail around the changes we have made to blogs. I'm really pleased with what we've come up with but this is only the first stage and your feedback is invaluable to help guide what happens going forward.

Why change?

In 2010 we recognised that the upkeep of the Movable Type platform which hosted the BBC blogs was becoming a significant overhead. This coupled with changes in support arrangements led to my development team and I conducting a review in October 2010. My review involved deciding the future for blogs at the BBC and what should be the underlying blogging platform. There was clearly still an audience desire for blogs and their content but the platform needed some work. We did some initial investigation which indicated significant complications due to the hundreds of different, non-standardised blogs and decided that it was not cost effective to undertake this work for a blogs bespoke Content Production System when compared to some of the other tools being used internally.

In line with the BBC Strategy to consolidate the online offering, outlined by Erik Huggers in 2011 we set ourselves the goal to rationalise the BBC's blog offering whilst ensuring the delivery of quality services in the most cost effective manner.

It became apparent that of the tools available iSite (the BBC version of the third party software Alfresco) was a clear favourite for several reasons:

  • It sits on the common BBC development platform which means that we can share features and functionality with the other products in the same infrastructure.
  • The Content Management System (CMS) is optimal for the BBC's architecture and compared to the other technologies we looked at this required very little development work to achieve a basic working system which could then be enhanced iteratively.
  • There is established internal support and training for iSite and we would no longer need to provide extra internal resource for maintenance.

The next strategic challenge was to align the overall design of BBC blogs up with the GEL standards in line with the rest of BBC Online, moving away from bespoke designs towards a more standardised look, feel and navigation.

We also recognised that this was a great opportunity to take a step back and find out what users think of our existing blogs. We undertook extensive audience research earlier this year; this involved surveys, diary studies and depth interviews to establish how our blogs are used, what you like, dislike and therefore what we should look to change.

What we found out

Overall, users like the general layout of blogs; instinctively recognising these as blogs due to an index page with posts listed in reverse chronological order and having comments displayed at the bottom of each post.

The overall design is intuitive and easy to follow, in particular having white space to break up text and differentiate between posts but without making the page look empty. Additionally people like the sidebar modules and generally find these lead on to useful areas. However, the boxes at the bottom of the page (archives, categories, authors) were seen as useful but wrongly situated (most people thought these should be on the right hand side).

Users liked reasonably meaty posts and in particular those broken up with images and audio or video content but didn't like having to scroll through particularly long posts on the index page.

What we came up with

Well see for yourselves! Today we launched Writersroom. This showcases the basic design on which we'll add new features and functionality as we upgrade around 125 blogs over the next few months. I'd love to hear what you think and in particular if there are bits that you particularly like or where we might make further improvements.

Each blog has the option to choose a dark or light background depending on their branding. There is then an option to add a default theme which will automatically apply pre-defined styles (see images above and below). Alternatively, for blogs with an established look and feel, there is an option to include a navigation bar (for those blogs which form part of websites) and coloured banner or background image, as well as options to change the colours for headings, links and sidebar modules. All of these styles will be automatically inherited for blogs which relate to television or radio programmes.

The default 'Corporate' theme applied to a blog post on a light background and an individual author page on a dark background. The 'lively' theme is shown at the top of this post.

The feedback from our research was that users don't like to scroll down the page too much and were put off by long posts on the index page. Therefore, the index page now consists of 1200 character summaries of the three most recent posts for a blog (including any images, video, or audio). Having reviewed the lengths of posts across blogs we decided that this was the optimum amount of content to give you enough context to choose whether to read more of the post and click through, or else to quickly move on to the next one. These three posts are followed by shorter summaries (600 characters) of the next seven posts. This puts the emphasis on the recent content but also allows you to easily click through to slightly older post which you might have missed.

Our research told us that people preferred us to refer to "tags" instead of "categories". We looked at how the categories had been used across the various blogs and found that multiple variations of the same term were being used. These were painstakingly reviewed and reduced from 4000 to 900 meaningful terms which can be used consistently by all blogs and added to where required. This makes it possible in the future for you to see pages displaying content from all blogs relating to a specific tag.

The individual author and tag pages also have a summary of the latest post, plus on the author page there is space for a larger image and description of the author so you know who they are.

The new comments module in GEL includes an Editor's picks functionality which allows BBC staff to highlight particularly interesting comments. You can make comments of up to 1000 characters (in line with the rest of BBC Online). Additionally, you can rate other people's comments as well as organise your view of the comments associated with a post either in order of rating or how recent they are.

What is next?

As well as upgrading the remaining BBC blogs in the new system there are quite a few new features which we plan to introduce along the way.

So far our plans include:

  • tag clouds to surface the most popular tags
  • a module to highlight the most read, shared and commented posts for a blog
  • a module which suggests other posts you might be interested in based on the number of shared tags
  • the ability to associate a particular blog post with a programme episode or clip so that the link to the post appears on the relevant episode page

I would love to hear from you with any ideas for features you would like which we might have missed so please do leave your comments below.

Jessica Shiel is Product Manager for Social Publishing Services, BBC Future Media

Comments

  • Comment number 1.

    The correct writers room blog appears to be http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/blogwritersroom and not /blogswritersroom which loads a different background but without any entries.

  • Comment number 2.

    The 1000 character comment limit seems excessively mean.

    The big problems with the new system are:

    - the removal of the very useful 'Topical posts on this blog' panel, which shows at a glance what the latest state of play is;

    - the removal of the 'Archives' panel, which is useful for finding an old blog;

    - the inability to format (bold, italic, url, blockquote): reading text with no inline url formatting will become spectacularly tedious;

    - (worst of all from this user's perspective,) the removal of the name link in the poster's comment to that poster's user profile.

    All in all, it's yet another epic downgrade from the BBC, and by the sounds of it, a very expensive one.

    Russ

  • Comment number 3.

    2. At 16:53 11th Jan 2012, Russ
    ----------

    This is marginally better than the BBC News blogs revamp last year (400 characters and narrow column to allow overseas users the pleasure of advertising on the right hand side).

    The news site is still disliked intensely by the regular users, and the old format (the one this is being posted on) remembered fondly. As for no formatting, it is all part of the dumbing down and the expectation that commenters have little of interest to say.

    The very fact that this style of blog is being rolled out further is an indication that the supposed user feedback is the usual "ask for the answers we want" nonsense. Did nobody read all the feedback (all 663 comments) at http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/theeditors/2011/05/our_next_step_in_news_blogging.html

    Don't tell me that these changes have anything to do with the feedback from your users!

  • Comment number 4.

    Users liked reasonably meaty posts

    Indeed they do. They also like reasonably meaty comments that are able to lead to an intelligent discussion.

  • Comment number 5.

    The comment length limits must die - we are not short of electrons.

  • Comment number 6.

    Will Blogs be available on the mobile version of bbc.co.uk ?

  • Comment number 7.

    It would appear the new blog layout cause horizontal scrolling when viewed in 1024 x 768px screen resolution, which doesn't occur on the other GEL sites. Also I see someone's quietly fixed the URL in this blog entry.

  • Comment number 8.

    If the comment length is removed, can you cut off comments more than a certain length (say 1000 chars) with a "show more" button? I like the idea of longer comments but hate the idea of having to wade through long discussions that are irrelevant to me. Cheers!

  • Comment number 9.

    As the blogs are also moving to the GEL format this will be another BBC page I won't be visiting again. I have already stopped going to the homepage, weather, radio and indivdual programme pages due to poor page design and I only keep going to the news page for the news content, otherwise I wouldn't bother with that either. Looks like the news pages are the last bastion of semi decent uncluttered design. Please don't tell me that is changing as well. Very disappointed with the BBC and their step backwards to the early 1990s. It would seem that standards, quality and user opinons are no longer considered. I hope the licence fee will be reduced to take into account that the new GEL design means licence fee payers are aliented from using the service.

  • Comment number 10.

    Edit to above post, it should have read: Looks like the SPORT (not news) pages are the last bastion of semi-decent uncluttered design. Please don't tell me that is changing as well.

    Apologies for the error.

  • Comment number 11.

    Despite the BBC's assertions of compliance with the GEL specs in this blog post, all the recent evidence points to an intentional non-compliance. The BBC is currently incapable or unwilling to explain its intentional non-compliance. The chances of getting an answer here are near zero.

    Russ

  • Comment number 12.

    You can 'prettify', redesign, make more childish in appearance or less useable, until you people are blue in the face. It clearly makes no difference what our opionion of it is, you will go ahead regardless.

    What REALLY matters is the quality of the informed discussion that is meant to be a fundamental part of a blog, but in the hands of the BBC boils down to a total lack of information, evasion of difficult questions, and feeble attempts to hide anything remotely critical of the increasingly daft 'design decisions' being made, particularly regarding the BBC internet presence.

    Concentrate on worthwhile content, stop distracting by messing about with the wrapping paper.

  • Comment number 13.

    With all of this, any chance you could bring back the universal RSS feed covering all the blogs. It exists, but nothing is being posted to it.

  • Comment number 14.

    The title on the Writersroom blog is showing up in the wrong font (Times New Roman for me). You need to change the font-family on line 18 of blogs-layout.css from this:

    font-family:gill sans;

    ...to this:

    font-family: "Gill Sans MT", "Gill Sans", Arial, Helmet, Freesans, sans-serif;

    That's what News and Weather use, as it ensures maximum compatibility (Gill Sans MT is the most common version on Windows machines)

  • Comment number 15.

    Oh no! :-(

  • Comment number 16.

    Thanks all for your comments, I will do my best to answer as many of you as possible. Firstly, for all of you who have mentioned the 1000 character limit in the new comments module, this is a new initiative that we're trialling based on user statistics; we will come back to you with a post outlining the details of this soon.

    @Russ (#2) - The 'Topical posts on this blog' feature will be replaced with a 'Most Commented/ Most shared' module soon. There is still an archive page and this can be reached by clicking on the 'all posts' link at the top of the page. Additionally, we will be introducing a side module to make this more visible.

    @JoeAD (#6) - Blogs will be available on the mobile version of bbc.co.uk later in the year.

    @Keith (#7) - thanks for pointing out the mistake in the URL - this has now been corrected. As for the horizontal scrolling, the blog is optimised to be viewable at 1024x768px and this is controlled by the Global masthead used across BBC Online. Any pages seen at a lower resolution will have layout discrepencies or require scrolling. On which page are you finding and issue, in which browser and what operating system are you using?

    @Greg Tyler (#8) - Thanks for that suggestion, I will pass it on.

    @Stuart Ian Burns (#13) - Thanks for your comment, I can certainly look at introducing a similar RSS feed in the future.

  • Comment number 17.

    @Jessica Shiel (16): I'm experiencing the horizontal scrolling when viewing in 1024x768 screen resolution using a Windows 7 machine, and it's occurring in both IE and Firefox. The problem appears to be on the right hand side with the grey background block to the right of the page sticking out further than it's meant to, as the rest of the page fits with the screen fine (if that makes sense). I don't have this problem with any of the other GEL sites I've visited.

  • Comment number 18.

    When are you going to fix the new homepage content display issues in Firefox (the market leading browser by the way) the new central carousel cuts the bottom off its articles so you can't read them.

    And when are you going to make making a complaint/contacting tech dept easier - i.e. not having to post something on a blog and hoping someone might read it?

  • Comment number 19.

    you keep 'improving' the blogs, more often than not without taking into account any of the comments and suggestions from us users. the result, predictably, is less usable/useful.

    at this point I feel like a long-ish rant about diktat, but what's the point?

  • Comment number 20.

    I believe scraping the top most voted comment from the most popular blogs and collating into a general blog page would make interesting reading and a good springboard into blogs.

  • Comment number 21.

    As for the horizontal scrolling, the blog is optimised to be viewable at 1024x768px and this is controlled by the Global masthead used across BBC Online.

    Not correct. Although it is true that the content of the new blog format below the masthead is all visible within 1024px and is aligned left, there is something wrong about the masthead, or its template is wrong, or its css is wrong - something is breaking the GEL-foundation 976px container, forcing browser horizontal scrollbars to appear.

    The problem is not browser- or operating-system specific.

    Russ

  • Comment number 22.

    Thanks for news on the archive pages (#16), but why don't the monthly index pages show the number of comments like the main index page does?

    Russ

  • Comment number 23.

    How will any formatted text in comments in the old system be shown in the new system?

    Russ

  • Comment number 24.

    Are you planning to get rid of the user profiles?

    Russ

  • Comment number 25.

    Your NEW BANNER stops the 'show more' on your blogs from working at all.

    PLEASE get it fixed.

  • Comment number 26.

    On blogs....

    The original version of unlimited length worked well for technical discussions.

    If the BBC imposes the proposed 1000 character limit it will still be an act of censorship for technical blog discussions where linguistic precision is needed whereas it may be too long to say yes or no. Variable length limits seems a good idea for you to try.

  • Comment number 27.

    I like it, the only thing I would say is that I don't like the white stripes at either side of the grey 'H'. The grey should go all the way across the page to the edge.

  • Comment number 28.

    @Keith (#17) and @Russ (#21) - Thanks for raising this issue. We are looking into it.

    @Russ (#22) - Number of comments should be showing on the monthly index pages. We know what the problem is and you should notice the fix next week.

    @Russ (#23) - Formatted text in comments in the old system will continue to be formatted in the new system.

    @John_from_Hendon (#25) - can you give me more details about where you're seeing this?

  • Comment number 29.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 30.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 31.

    @Russ (#24) - Due to various technical complexities we have had to temporarily remove the user profile link within the comments module – but the good news is we will be restoring it when we get the right resource in place, hopefully within the next two months.

  • Comment number 32.

    Thanks Jessica, that is excellent news.

    Russ

  • Comment number 33.

    In an update to my post above, the BBC sport page as now been infected with the current poor design virus spreading through the BBC's online offerings. With the blogs going the same way it would seem nothing is safe. I used to visit the BBC pages several times a day but no longer I'm afraid. I'm sure the content is still good but ufortunately the bad design of the pages is driving people away to other, easier to use, sites. Will we be due a refund on our licence fee money for no longer being able to use the BBC online?

  • Comment number 34.

    We need a faster bbc blog service.

  • Comment number 35.

    The example iSite Writersroom presentation of 5 comments per page, with the option of showing 'all comments' (which turns out to be misleading, because it then shows only 20 comments per page!) is cumbersome and far too fussy, and will invoke an unnecessarily high number of BBC server interrogation requests. I suggest the number of iSite system comments per page should be 100. Not only will this align with the current Movable Type system, giving users less of a radical change when iSite is rolled out, it will align with the figures and objectives given in your and Richard Summers' previous reports for reducing page delivery and load times and better search engine optimisation of blog posts.

    Russ

  • Comment number 36.

    With the various blogs on recent BBC ‘up-grades’ to the Homepage and Sports etc., and being an active reader until now – would it be possible to add a ‘-A’ for Active and a ‘-C’ for Closed, to the response count in the Topical Posts Listings. e.g. BBC Homepage: your feedback (#2) – Comments (1466-C) or BBC Homepage: Localisation & Accessibility Updates – Comments (69-A).

    This would allow avid readers and writers simple points of reference to the latest feedback/comments in their area of interest without having to check each blog.

    Recently, well since late November, the blogs have been more interesting than the BBC websites – I do however still access the BBC News site but linked from another provider.

  • Comment number 37.

    Do I hear the noise of the horses' hooves dragging the banner of usability further into the distant.

    I am no longer shocked by the continual downgrading of our BBC and lack of real actions towards improving the website.

    I am registering my thumbs down - another change to save money in an effort to maintain the salaries of the faceless executives within the BBC IT Teams.

    You might not like my comments, you may 'moderate' them off but it doesn't change my opinion.

    Overall I think this change is another development which has been released without fully testing, without the support of the audience and with technical issues

    Ok Questions to stimulate the grey cells............

    @16. At 15:59 12th Jan 2012, Jessica Shiel wrote:
    "This is a new initiative that we're trialling based on user statistics; we will come back to you with a post outlining the details of this soon"
    When? I guess when the statistics are 'levelled' out to show what you need them to justify the change.

    "Blogs will be available on the mobile version of bbc.co.uk later in the year."
    When - What project is allowed to run without deadlines?
    This shows the a lack of accountability by the management team.

    "The 'Topical posts on this blog' feature will be replaced with a 'Most Commented/ Most shared' module soon."
    When is soon? Again a lack of accountability and visibility.


    @ 31. "hopefully within the next two months."
    When - hopefully does not imply a positive action or notion.
    This shows the a lack of accountability by the management team.

  • Comment number 38.

    All this user's posts have been removed.Why?

 

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