BBC Radio 4
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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.

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  • Comment number 26. Posted by Sue_Aitch

    on 17 Mar 2009 12:49

    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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  • Comment number 25. Posted by anonymous2009

    on 16 Mar 2009 23:12

    @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).

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  • Comment number 24. Posted by Andrew

    on 15 Mar 2009 16:01

    @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).

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  • Comment number 23. Posted by Steve Bowbrick

    on 15 Mar 2009 11:38

    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 22. Posted by Steve Bowbrick

    on 15 Mar 2009 11:10

    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 21. Posted by kleines c

    on 15 Mar 2009 08:00

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

    ramagel

    Which comics would you recommend? ;)

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  • Comment number 20. Posted by anonymous2009

    on 15 Mar 2009 00:10

    @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.

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  • Comment number 19. Posted by ramagel

    on 14 Mar 2009 20:09

    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!

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  • Comment number 18. Posted by Andrew

    on 14 Mar 2009 18:22

    @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).

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  • Comment number 17. Posted by kleines c

    on 14 Mar 2009 14:30

    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)! :)

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