Herding Digital Cats - Pt 1
Or, Ten Years of Information Architecture at the BBC
This post is part of the tenth birthday celebrations of bbc.co.uk
In his introduction to this set of tenth birthday articles, Nick Reynolds said that he couldn't recall a time when the BBC didn't have a website. This raises the question: if the BBC's Director General woke up tomorrow, and suddenly realised that the BBC had forgotten to ever build a website - what would Mark Thompson ask to be built?
If you set yourself the task of imagining building bbc.co.uk from scratch, there are quite a few things that probably wouldn't look much different. A page for every programme? That makes sense. A place to download TV programmes and catch-up on radio? Likewise - although the way we now take listen again and DRM-free podcast downloads for granted belies the innovation, technical and legal complexities in delivering those services.
You'd probably also think about building something pretty similar to the BBC News site. I suspect, though, that it in the regulatory climate of 2007 it would be rather harder for the BBC to launch. The howls of protest to the BBC Trust Ofcom and the DCMS from the commercial news sector would be deafening.
There are some things that, on reflection, you probably wouldn't build.
Why have BBC only TV listings on bbc.co.uk, when BBC Worldwide has a perfectly good Radio Times site covering much more, and, as the TV promos might have said, "other listings web sites are available"?
The Telegraph recently ran an article with a list of rather odd bits on the fringe of the site that the BBC could perhaps cull - although visiting the ever-entertaining h2g2 in order to look for something obscure or esoteric was rather like shooting Babel fish in a barrel.
Since the breadth of coverage on BBC Online has always been vast, and because in 1997 the BBC was so wedded to the concept of being a linear broadcaster, it has been problematic to organise the site.
Lots of the content is easy to define - that is News, this is a TV series, that was on Radio.
But what about Jamie Kane? Where do you put an immersive game experience that was played out on websites, mobile phones and through instant messages?
Or "WW2 People's War"? A great historical resource collection, no doubt - but it's not structured "education" content for schools, nor does it have a television programme to go with it.
Karen Loasby, team leader for the information architects in the Future Media & Technology division, recently defined the problem as trying to "re-brand miscellaneous". Whichever way you sort the BBC's web content, you always end up with a pile of "awkward bits 'n' bobs". Describing her work on a recent project to re-define the site's Information Architecture from scratch, she said:
"Alongside the meaningful stuff like 'programmes' and 'news' we've got 'about' which is just a bucket for corporate information and other pages we have to have on the site but the audience isn't necessarily looking for. At the moment we've also got 'innovation' which is a bucket of new stuff that doesn't fit in the current org structure. And then there is 'products' which wouldn't necessarily be a miscellaneous category for another organisation but for us it means things we make that aren't TV or Radio programmes. Might need to have a re-think."
Deciding how the site's organisation was shaped has always had a massive impact on the design of the BBC's homepage, and in the last of my guest posts for this blog, I'll be looking at ten years of homepage information design.
Martin Belam is a former Senior Development Producer, New Media