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More from the BBC Red Button "What If..." files

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Andrew Bowden Andrew Bowden | 09:30 UK time, Monday, 15 June 2009

When we're coming up with designs for new products, our design team tend to come up with a couple of different options so that the team can sit down and discuss what works best.

And it was no different in the early days when the BBC's red button pioneers were trying to work out what their new service would look like.

One idea was the very Ceefax inspired idea I wrote about recently. And with grateful thanks to the fact that no one has cleaned up our servers, I can show you one of the other options.

Proposed Digital Text homepage from 1998

Taking a look at them, it's clear that they're the complete polar opposite to the very Ceefax based designs.

Proposed design for TV listings section from 1998

This is a technique often done when you're working on a completely new product - design two radically different options and work out what's good and bad about each one - and design something inbetween.

Proposed design for a News index page from 1998

In this version there appear to be several sets of arrows. We have traditionally used arrows a lot in designing menus to let users know that they can get around the menu by using the arrow keys on their remote control - although as people become more and more used to the technology, this is becoming less necessary.

Here there are three sets of arrows which suggest that there are three sets of menus you could scroll through. Pressing LEFT and RIGHT appears to move you through the main sections - News, Sport, Weather etc. There's a sub-navigation bar on the left where you can pick which part of News you want, as well as a menu on the right so you can go through the headlines.

There's a very small TV screen in the top left, and the ability to make it bigger using the green key. And you may also notice that in some of the screenshots, blue takes you to "Internet".

Quite what the intention of that option was is unfortunately lost in the mists of time - as is exactly how the design is supposed to work.

When we're designing new services we often do prototype versions which can be mocked up quickly on a computer - in the early days we used Director, now we use Flash. These mock ups enable the team to visualise the service they're trying to build far better than is possible by simply looking at static pictures.

We also regularly use them for user testing purposes. Using an IR sensor and plugging a laptop PC into a TV set, we can sit someone onto a sofa, give them a remote control and let them use a "service" in anger and find out what they think.

It's very likely a prototype was created for this set of designs, however if it was, it has sadly been lost.

Proposed design for a weather map from 1998

Looking at the design over ten years after it was created, there's one thing that's very noticeable and that's how busy it looks. There's a lot going on, from promos for TV programmes through to headlines appearing at the bottom of the screen. It looks more like a late 1990s web page than the services we design for TV now.

With many years of experience under our belts, we would never design a service that looked like this; our research tells us that people want a simple, uncluttered interface on their TV. However back in 1998, there were no rules for people to follow; the guidebook had yet to be written. And that meant trying everything to see what worked and what didn't, before using that information to work out what to do next.

It's a guidebook we're still using as our services grow and adapt with new technology. New advances like internet connected set top boxes will offer their own challenges due to the potential to add a lot more content to our service. However thanks to the pioneering work done by the team in the late 1990s, we'll be able to make sure that information is presented in a clear and engaging way to you at home.

Andrew Bowden has worked for BBC Red Button for more than a few years. But not quite as long as these images have been floating around on the servers...


  • 1. At 11:58am on 16 Jun 2009, Briantist wrote:

    Reminds me a lot of the BT 1995 BT Interactive TV trial that ran in 2500 Ipswich homes for a while (and in Las Vegas for a week for NAB).

    When you turned it on there was this lovely high-quality animation of high-quality colourful characters that lasted 10-15 seconds.

    "And now what do you do?" people would ask.

    And then it would be pointed out that these Morph-like characters where numbers. For example the little "TV set" was also a number four.

    Would love to see a screen shot of that if anyone has one!

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  • 2. At 12:06pm on 16 Jun 2009, Briantist wrote:

    Actually I have found a picture of it. The BT 1995 Interactive TV trial:


    It seems much less sophisticated than my memory remembers.


    One thing that would be great to get back on BBC Digital Text would be the old "blue button" service.

    On Freeview you used to be able to use the blue button to get up the information about the programme, such as the cast list and other background information. This would cover just the "now" and "previous" programmes. Shame it can't come back as "page 555" or something...

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  • 3. At 2:32pm on 16 Jun 2009, Andrew Bowden wrote:

    In the past we didn't have the data in an easy format to do cast lists and background information - it had to be created specially for us. What we found is that it wasn't being used enough to justify the costs of creating it.

    Skip forward a fair few years, and there's now a system to produce a web page for every single programme the BBC broadcasts. You can see it on http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/

    So it might be something we return in the future if there is demand.

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  • 4. At 4:01pm on 16 Jun 2009, Brekkie wrote:

    Loving these gems from the archive.

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  • 5. At 08:52am on 17 Jun 2009, cjedj wrote:

    Talking of things that have been around for a while, full red button service on Freesat would be nice. It's been over a year guys.

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  • 6. At 6:26pm on 17 Jun 2009, Green Soap wrote:

    Stop trying fancy-dan newfangled graphics rich applications, and give the option for the old Ceefax on the Red Button.

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  • 7. At 7:30pm on 17 Jun 2009, Passo0 wrote:

    The designs are, indeed, very 90s. I would be appalled by such a monstrosity if it were to become the new red button page tomorrow. But 10 years ago, anything would have been good because it was new and exciting.

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  • 8. At 09:31am on 26 Oct 2009, Vinkenn Lasikma wrote:

    Some designs have been there for a while now and look pretty old.The red button pioneers did their job and now it's time to see what the team has new to offer and what's the loon for the old Ceefax on the Red Button if it's finally done.[Unsuitable/Broken URL removed by Moderator]

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