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Designing the new R4 web site

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Leigh Aspin Leigh Aspin 10:41, Monday, 9 March 2009


As Interactive Editor for Radio 4, I'm responsible for the content of our digital services. I'm joining the blog this week to tell you about a relaunch of the Radio 4 website scheduled for the end of this month.

This is something I've thought we should do for some time. The current site is about 7 years old - ancient in web terms. Its design and much of its supporting technology have become dated and won't be able to deliver all the great services that we want to bring you. The site has also become more crowded and consequently less easy to use as new services (podcasts, for example) have been bolted on.

Whenever an established website is relaunched, it is disruptive for its users. It's rather like a supermarket re- opening after a refit: it looks brighter and you assume people must have made changes for a good reason but it takes you a couple of visits to find all of your favourite items again. You need a good reason to justify that disruption.

And there will always be more that we could do to enhance programme sites, or new technologies just a few months away that we could wait for. Developing a website is a job that is never completed.

The most important reason for relaunching now is that some of our core services just aren't working as well as they should. For instance, you've understandably been frustrated when a technical problem has prevented you from listening online to your chosen programme. The current website's relatively old and patchwork technology is the cause of some of the problems we've experienced in recent months and applying sticking plaster will only work for so long.

While your feedback has been reasonably positive over the last few years, we've also picked up a trend (both from the emails you send and more formal audience research) that you're finding the site a little less easy to use and we've had quite a few comments about the site feeling "cluttered", especially our homepage. I recall one user's more extreme response to the question "what do you dislike about this website?". "Everything except the audio" he or she replied.

There are several advances in design and technology on bbc.co.uk that we can take advantage of. At relaunch, we'll be moving most of the site to a wider page template (compare the width of the Radio 4 homepage with the BBC homepage) and adopting a fresh design that will give our content more room to breathe. The site will be supported by improved technology that should provide a more robust audio service and will deliver more consistent navigation around the site. So there's a good match between these improvements, the issues your feedback raises and our own aspirations for the progress of the service.

This week we're analysing the results of our user- testing of the new site. I'm encouraged that initial reactions seem to be positive from regular and lighter users but we will doubtless be making some tweaks to the work we've done. I'll then give you a preview of the new page designs and features next week.

One last important point: this relaunch is a milestone in our redevelopment of Radio 4's web service but we don't intend to wait another 7 years before developing further. There will be more to do to improve the site and it will serve as the foundation for some exciting new features and programme sites that we hope to launch during the next year and beyond. I'll look forward to your comments once we've relaunched, which will help us to improve the service as we go forward.

  • This is Leigh's first post about the redesign. Here is the second.


  • Comment number 1.

    If I may ask you a direct question, Leigh, how interactive do you think that BBC Radio 4 website should become? What sort of feedback, for example, are you looking for from listeners in the future?


  • Comment number 2.

    I'm very pleased the Radio 4 website is to be revamped. Even with my occasional luddite tendencies and love for an old friend, it is high time for a major overhaul.

    1 I assume the redesign will be rolled out gradually throughout the range of Radio 4 pages? (I can't imagine will you be able to do all at once.) Do you have a timescale plan for this?

    2 Homepage architecture is always a killer compromise. I will grudgingly admit to a growing liking for the way the main bbc.co.uk frontpage is user-adjustable with the 'moving-the-panes-around' and 'ticking the news items and categories' widgets - all good geeky stuff, but it does come at a terrible price for the time it takes for the page to present and sort itself out on screen. Admittedly it's a very difficult balancing act. (What's that old internet adage - something like "You lose a visitor for every extra second your homepage takes to download"?)

    3 One aspect I did get to like very much about the old design was the extravagant but coordinated use of coloured background cells and the distinction between bold and normal text functions. I know that sort of thing is frowned on in these feng-shui whitespace days, but any visual navigational aid, however seemingly old-fashioned, would greatly help I feel. We haven't all got sharp young eyes like you.

    4 It's very difficult to comment in detail on your announcement. Got any beta-screenshots or details of these 'several advances in design and technology'?

    5 I assume this blog will be a multi-part blog. I understand the reason for that, but the Beeb's current treatment of multi-part blogs is clunky and haphazard. If it is to be a multi-part blog, please include links between all the parts, and could I also make a general request that comment lists on multi-part blogs are somehow concatenated, so that users can follow the whole discussion easier. (Sorry to lay that last point on you but it's almost impossible to contact someone/anyone in the BBC who might be responsible for overseeing general architectural points in the burgeoning and chaotic BBC blog network.)


  • Comment number 3.

    The internet is such a rapidly developing technology, Russ, that I suspect that Leigh will adopt a "try it and see what happens" approach. Radio 4 is unlikely to get its website 'optimal' on its first attempt, or indeed, its last attempt.

    Of course, as users, we are in a prime position to tell Leigh how we currently use the BBC website, and how we would really like to use the BBC website.

    I should perhaps warn Leigh that in the spirit of interactivity, I have started a parallel discussion on 'The Choice is Yours' message board, if only so that the BBC Radio 4 message board communities can discuss the changes as they happen over the next month. Here is the link:


    Cheers! ;)

  • Comment number 4.

    In the spirit of all things Web 2.0, how about letting your intelligent and computer literate listeners have access to your beta?

    Better to let us help you identify any potential failings before you go upsetting those with a more tender disposition to change?

  • Comment number 5.

    Thanks @Russ for your requests. I'll certainly try to comply and will definitely interlink related blog posts on this theme. If I can group blog posts on the same topic using keywords I will do so. We're working with a pretty simple blogging platform here, though, and we don't have the flexibility to 'concatenate comments' in the way you suggest. Stay in touch, though, and let me know if you think we could be doing things better.

    Steve Bowbrick, editor, Radio 4 blog

  • Comment number 6.

    My own feeling, Steve, would be that the BBC Radio 4 blogs, message boards and 'Have Your Say' comments are currently quite difficult to navigate, particularly if you are new to the BBC website. I used to contribute to the 'Today' message board, for example, but when it closed in 2008, it became very confusing to interact digitally with the 'Today' programme.

    I currently use the BBC message boards quite extensively, although I find them quite labyrinthine, so to speak. Although labyrinths can have their attractions, particularly if you like Minotaurs, I sense that you are beginning to create your own labyrinth with the Radio 4 blogs as well.

    Perhaps, as Russ, suggests, you could make it easier for Radio 4 listeners, and in particular, users of the Radio 4 website, to find their way around 'the system'. One simple way, when you start a blog, or comment on a blog, is to provide relevant links. Thanks!


  • Comment number 7.

    Thanks Steve; I do want to stay in touch. I have a bunch of general comments about BBC Blogs, but it would be offtopic and unfair to Leigh to make them here in this particular one. So I suggest a separate blog post about such matters please. Secondly, it's not certain who or where we should stay in touch with - from Nick Reynolds blog, I note "Steve's time with us is coming to an end".


  • Comment number 8.

    I told you that the internet was not quite as transparent as we might have hoped, Russ. Cheers (afternoon tea)!


  • Comment number 9.

    I'm very worried about this 'width' thing. Whilst width works well when I have one of my old laptops rigged up to a 32" television, my latest laptop does not have the newer wider screen. Text appears very small, but if you just 'Zoom' in, the concept just breaks down. Remember all us older surfers who do not have the latest wider layout screens please when you make the changeover

  • Comment number 10.

    Agree with Briantist (4) - can we have a Beta to look at?

    Lots of the other redesigned BBC websites (front page, weather, Radio 1) have had an option to use the beta for a few weeks before it officially launched.

  • Comment number 11.

    It is not rocket science to make a web page to adapt to the width of the window it's displayed in, so it's really annoying that the BBC homepage fails to do it, and a great shame R4 is going the same way. It's not just old surfers who don't have wide screens - think of netbook or smartphone users and those of us who may have big screens but want to be able to see more than one window at a time.

    The most annoying thing about the BBC homepage is that it does all that funky stuff to let me move almost all the elements over into one or two columns, but obstinately refuses to use the space I've freed for it to shrink to the width I want and get rid of that really annoying horizontal scrollbar (http://www.useit.com/alertbox/20050711.html).

  • Comment number 12.

    I hope the home page won't waste as much space as Radio 3's does. Otherwise, bring it on!

  • Comment number 13.

    Thanks very much for your comments. To answer your questions:

    Kleines c asked about the sort of feedback I'd like to receive. I'll be grateful for comments (on the blog, messageboard or via email) with constructive feedback about the new site and how we could improve it for you.

    Russ asked about the rollout plan. Most of our programme pages will change at this relaunch although not all of our mini-sites (eg The Archers, Woman's Hour) will be fully revamped at this point. The mini-site development work is underway and we are working on the timescale to introduce new minisites one by one throughout the rest of this year.

    And Russ, Briantist and Moz have asked about screenshots or a Beta version.
    I'd like to have been able to launch a Beta version but with the volume of content being created for the site each week, this wasn't feasible. We're changing the way that we produce content (moving from static html pages to dynamically published content across most of the site) and to run two versions of the site, we'd have had to double the workload of all those who produce Radio 4 web content, for a couple of weeks at least.

    But we are going to publish some sample pages next week, once the work is complete, to give you a preview of the new site. We won't be able to respond to all of your comments before launch but we do intend to develop and improve the service in the weeks and months that follow and your feedback will help to shape those changes. The user-testing that we performed last week was a manageable way of sense-checking the work that we've done so far.

  • Comment number 14.

    There's probably a separate messagge board or blog about the darned (I hate Flash) iPlayer radio console...

    however, in case someone spots this - can they consider a change to increase the contrast (for example, the time and text describing the programme that it playing).

    I have pretty good eyes for my age (and was tested against colour blindness for the Navy) but had to push up both brightness and contrast past 90% to see the time information (on a standard 17" monitor, not a widescreen LCD laptop).

    Many of my clients happen to use screens at 800x600 and I suspect that web designers with 21" LCD displays, and/or widescreen laptops are getting sucked into assumptions about what others use. (Just like broadcasters say they "Google it" when many other search engines are available, and Google need no free "promotion"!)

    Check out the type of gear in the back of your local paper, on the 'for sale' cards at the supermarket, and being offered for free on Freecycle.org and you may find few or no widescreen laptops, just 15" and maybe 17" monitors which may not cope with much higher than 800x600 pixels!

    Your readership is more than just under 40s in the South East, and although we hear of government plans to fund more PCs for families, many will be making do with older kit for a good few years, I bet.

  • Comment number 15.

    (I posted a longer version of this in a thread on the Radio 4 message board: http://www.bbc.co.uk/dna/mbradio4/F2766774?thread=6391717#p77158333)

    @anonymous2009: To clarify, you don't need a widescreen monitor to fit the new 1000 pixels wide design on your screen; any resolution of 1024 x 768 (or higher) on a 4:3 monitor will be perfectly fine.

    15" monitors should probably and 17" monitors will definitely be able to display 1024 x 768.

  • Comment number 16.

    Now try viewing on a Pocketsurfer (640x 420 from memory - I used one for 6 months last year - also has no Flash player!)

    Sorry, I do know that you can view things on a 4:3 - I am using a friend's PC this minute but my home PCs are (on Windows at least) set to 1280 x 1024 in the main, however, the background of HTML was to 'adapt' to whatever was being used.

    It's a general point that any site which expects a user to have a particular browser or screen resolution or plug-in is, in my view, 'unfriendly' and tends to limit its audience.

    There were criticisms in the past of the BBC for using RealPlayer (despite it working on linux etc, etc), but with iPlayer they have gone from one piece of proprietary software to another - and one which has previously been abused for advertising pop-ups and running malware (though I don't think that's true of RP).

    I've seen the MB post and started composing a response, but had to go out before I posted that one... Maybe later.

  • Comment number 17.

    One point that you should perhaps note, Leigh, is that I have a strong preference for pictures over words on the internet.

    I quite like looking at a screen with a single striking image, rather than a lot of information and links, so perhaps you could consider this option for some of the webpages on the BBC Radio 4 website.

    The homepage is probably slightly different. You want something which tells the user (or listener) what is on BBC Radio 4, and where to get more information.

    Cheers (lunch)! :)

  • Comment number 18.

    @anonymous2009: I do agree with your point that to view a website you shouldn't need a particular browser (as long as it's a relatively recent one; I see no need to spend time and money catering to people still running ancient browsers like Netscape, IE4, really old versions of Firefox, etc.) or a particular plugin (Flash is absolutely everywhere these days, but the BBC, unlike some websites, makes a very good effort in my experience to make sure that pages degrade gracefully if you don't have Flash, or don't have it turned on).

    However, I still very much disagree with you about requiring a particular screen resolution (1024 pixels width is the maximum I'm talking about, because a huge number of people are on 1024 x 768 and it will be a long time before that changes). When (as I pointed out in the MB post) over 90% of users have resolutions that can handle it, it seems entirely reasonable to me to make use of the extra space instead of squishing the contents of a website all the way to the left for the small minority who haven't upped their resolution yet.

    Also, remember that the BBC has a special website designed for mobile devices (such as the Pocketsurfer you mentioned) at http://www.bbc.co.uk/mobile/index.shtml (you can read more about it at http://www.bbc.co.uk/mobile/web/ , and they also recently launched a beta of a new mobile website for more advanced devices: http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/bbcinternet/2009/03/introducing_the_new_mobile_hom.html ).

    And in terms of RealPlayer vs. Flash, it's true that Flash is commonly used for ads (although if you're using a browser like Firefox this can easily be blocked with NoScript or Flashblock; I've never heard about malware being distributed through Flash but there are of course known security vulnerabilities in older versions) but remember that RealPlayer is so obnoxious in terms of the advertising it shows you (including the awful "Message Center") that the BBC had them develop a special version without advertising/spyware ( http://www.boingboing.net/2004/02/01/how-to-get-spywarefr.html )! So the move away from RealPlayer for audio and video isn't all bad ;)

    And once browsers (for example the soon-to-be released Firefox 3.1) that can play audio and video without a plugin (as part of the developing HTML5 standard) become widely available, I'm hoping that the BBC will use that as an option, maybe for news clips (I very much doubt they'd use it for iPlayer).

  • Comment number 19.

    Oh Lord, kleines c! PLEASE buy comics if you want pictures :)

    Let the Internet (and Radio 4 especially) be a haven for those who crave information and enlightenment, not electronic wallpaper.

    Whitespace can be as good a decorative element as pictures - and certainly a better structural element.

    Imagine if all the resources wasted on having creative talent create fancy graphics were allocated to improving content!

  • Comment number 20.

    @18 "it seems entirely reasonable to me to make use of the extra space instead of squishing the contents of a website all the way to the left"

    It does seem reasonable to me too, abd that works fine when you don't specify fixed sizes, but proportions of a window.

    Very long lines of text, are, however, difficult to read (that's one reason why newspapers have multiple columns - get past 70-80 characters and you start to lose track of where the next line of text starts).

    The problem I see is that if 5% or 10% of several million possible users (I am guessing) have to scroll, it's making their experience of the site less pleasant - worse, in some cases, is the possibility they don't see options / links simply because they're off screen to the right, and the user may not really notice they need to scroll to see that part.

    Currently the text for the blogs is using even less (approx 400 pixels) of the screen than the message board width, but if it went much more than 600 pixels, the number of character per line could exceed 90 and readability would decline.

    It strikes me, therefore, that only on multi-column pages such as the week-to-view programme schedule or news pages, or programme background pages where there's a mix of text and photos, would the extra width be used.

  • Comment number 21.

    "Oh Lord, kleines c! PLEASE buy comics if you want pictures"


    Which comics would you recommend? ;)

  • Comment number 22.

    Thanks to all for your input so far. Lots of useful material for Leigh and his team. I think you'll understand that these topics - particularly browser support, page widths and standards for media playback - animate the corridors and tea rooms at bbc.co.uk as much as they do the blogs and messageboards.

    If you haven't done so already I'd recommend that you check out the 'Future Media Standards and Guidelines' pages http://www.bbc.co.uk/guidelines/futuremedia/technical/browser_support.shtml where you'll find detailed consideration of all these issues and links to pages about browser support http://www.bbc.co.uk/guidelines/futuremedia/technical/browser_support.shtml and the document 'Global Visual Language v2.0' which is a very detailed set of design standards for BBC pages.

    Some of this stuff is quite technical so I'd also recommend this excellent post from May last year on the BBC Internet blog by Mat Hampson who was a lead developer on the BBC's recent epic redesign of web page templates (which has been named, for obscure reasons that he explains, Barlesque): http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/bbcinternet/2008/05/barlesque.html

  • Comment number 23.

    And also worth noting, @neoGrandad, @snayle, @andrew646 and anonymous2009 that, for better or worse, the Radio 4 blog will be getting a bit wider quite soon too, when the new BBC blog templates arrive. The change is rolling out across BBC blogs now but I don't know exactly when it will hit this one - I'll let you know when I do. You can get an idea of what it will look like on the BBC Internet blog, where the change has already happened: http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/bbcinternet Personally, I like it and I'm looking forward to the extra flexibility it should bring...

    Steve Bowbrick, editor, Radio 4 blog

  • Comment number 24.

    @anonymous2009: You make a good point about the readability of long lines of text, but I still think the new wider layouts (like on the BBC Internet blog that Steve mentioned in his second post) look cleaner, less cluttered and easier-to-read overall, especially given that the blog posts themselves only take up about 2/3 of the width (if it took up the whole width, then I agree with you that it would impair readability significantly).

  • Comment number 25.

    @22 regarding changes to templates etc... have not yet read the various pages but did notice, comparing the BBC 7 and Radio 4 message boards, that when viewing a list of one's past comments, there's something 'missing' with the new colour scheme on the BBC 7 style page.

    From the R4 MB, the page has contrast so one can quickly see which threads have new posts without needing to carefully study the numbers down the right-hand side.

    However, on the BBC7 page, such contrast is missing.

    See http://tinyurl.com/BBC-MB-css (800x600 JPG)

    split the R4 page and inserted the BBC7 one.

    Another thing I note is that the bold links (eg "The Choice is Yours" and date/time of last contribution) are no longer as bold - I'd hardly guess they are "links" on the BBC7 page...

    I hope someone can ensure there is contrast retained in both aspects for clarity (please).

  • Comment number 26.

    If the Radio 4 refit include the School Radio I would like to see the How to Listen boxes updated as to other Digital Platforms used to deliver school programming.

    Also please may we have the local MW wavelengths for R4LW listed somewhere linked straight from the homepage - somethign along the lines of http://www.bbc.co.uk/asiannetwork/howtolisten/radio/.

    I listen to the Daily Service on 720 MW as I don't have a radio that can receive 198LW.


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