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"This website is nice": CBBC website relaunched

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Phil Buckley Phil Buckley | 14:23 UK time, Thursday, 10 February 2011

Last week, one section of the CBBC website was relaunched in a radically improved and more easily navigable format, so I'd like to explain what it is that we have done and how we got to where we are.

The first CBBC website

The first incarnation of the CBBC website appeared back in 1995: in this video you can see it being introduced by Toby Anstis. The world was a different place back then, and I should warn you that statistically 3.4 of you will actually die laughing while watching this, so please view with assistance nearby.

I have scoured our archives and there is just no record of the page Toby introduces still in existence; but here I have found a version of the site from 1998:

CBBC website in 1998

There are a couple of nice touches here: in those days we used the Comic Sans font which is now prohibited in the contracts of our designers, and it also includes one of my favourite sentences on the entire internet which I have stolen for the title of this blog post:

cbbc website slogan 1998

There was also an animated version of the site, hence the reference to the 'Normal version', but the animated one apparently included 'a massive rocket'.

The digital hub of Children's lives

There are two recurring themes I will write about today, and if we move forward to 1999, you will see the first of them emerging:

CBBC home page from 1999

Comic Sans has now been dropped, but you also see a great example of the phenomenal breadth of content that is the cornerstone of CBBC:

excerpt from CBBC in 1999

This juxtaposition is a particularly heroic one, but for me, the ability to cover many parts of life, introducing them to children in a way that is both engaging and not patronising is a core strength and indeed essence of CBBC, both on TV and online.

We see this again on the CBBC homepage on September 11, 2001.

We know from our statistics and search logs that children have a tremendous hunger to understand the world: on this day, the CBBC website rose to the challenge, telling people about the attacks on the World Trade Center and encouraging them to ask questions if they didn't understand what was happening.

Managing increasing amounts of content

Later in 2001 we see the first emergence of my second theme: the website struggling to cope with the sheer volume of this content:

CBBC website 2001

I have cut off the image for your sanity, but there were actually 17 items in the left hand menu, plus another 5 in the top menu. As humans can struggle to quickly process more than about 5 options, this website will certainly have been a struggle to get around for many children.

This continues in 2002. At this time, CBBC got its own TV channel, and content for younger children was spun off into another channel and website: CBeebies. So, there was now less to show, but how to show it all remained a problem:

CBBC website in 2002

Here the navigation has moved into three dimensions: the TV shows are in a carousel on the right hand side (starting with Shoebox Zoo and Xchange); more generic content such as Search and Games is on the left hand menu, and there is also a top menu which I think was meant to house services, but with Star Chat appearing has also began to house content.

In 2005, for the first time, CBBC moved into a technical platform designed to manage content, which addressed some of these problems:

CBBC website in 2005

Here again we have shows on the right of the page starting with Basil Brush, and generic content on the left starting with Art; but we also see some rather neat solutions to allow children to get to the content they want. Under each of the headings on the left are some linked examples of what the heading means - so you can go to the Cartoons index page via the heading, or go straight to content from Pitt and Kantrop or Likeaballs.

The content remains both varied and magical: as well as a cartoon about spies called The Secret Show, there is some content around 'Saving Planet Earth', again an area of huge concern for children. In the bottom row there are tips for staying safe on the internet, and also children's voices directly on the CBBC homepage in the 'Message Boards' section - albeit (ahem) with a bug on the example above so no messages are actually showing. It worked some a lot of the time.

However, in 2007 the legacy content management system the CBBC website was being phased out and this website went back to being managed editorially. This was accompanied by a fantastic new design:

CBBC website in 2007

And again, the content is strong: I can highly recommend the Championsheeps games. But the problems with holding the content began to re-emerge. The menu for shows is now on the second row starting with Deadly 60: 7 shows are visible at any one time, and to see different ones you click on the lever marked 'PULL' at the right.

However, after the first set of 7 shows which are chosen by the CBBC team, it is actually randomised as to which ones appear: every user testing session we go on includes a hugely depressing 30 seconds or so while children pull the lever as many times as is necessary to see the logo of their favourite show.

The relaunched CBBC website: allowing the CBBC audience to find exactly what they want

So what we have we arrived at today? The CBBC homepage remains as above, but if you go into the section marked 'Things To Do' in the top menu you will move into a modern, database driven website.

CBBC website in 2011

Here, instead of the CBBC team simply choosing what to highlight, children can also filter through the wealth of content to get precisely what they want: just things to do from Blue Peter, or just stuff to colour in, or anything to do around animals. So at last, CBBC's website is able to showcase its tremendous content in the best possible way.

You will notice that there is not a vast visual difference between this and the previous version of the site: this is both because Things To Do is side by side with sections still in the old system, and a reflection of the visual strength of the current design.

However, over the coming weeks, you will see firstly that the other sections will be are moved into the new system and benefit from all the architectural advantages, and then, when the whole website is ready, we will tweak the design further. This will include replacing the 'Pull' lever navigation: no 'clippy' style wake is currently planned, but suggestions are welcome. The Games section is coming next, followed by Watch.

I'll post again when the further sections are out, but please let us know what you think.

I'd also like to thank the team for their tremendous efforts in delivering what I think is a fantastic website.

Phil Buckley is Portfolio and Product Manager for BBC Children's and BBC Future Media & Technology


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