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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...

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