BBC R&D

What we're doing

BBC Shuffle is a web-based application which plays BBC iPlayer programmes continuously, tailoring its suggestions to you depending on your interactions with it.

It knows nothing else about you: nothing about your friends, past behaviour, who you are with, nothing at all: just what you feel like watching right now.

Because it shuffles all available programmes from BBC iPlayer and uses information about what else people watch when they watch a programme, it can quickly find something for you to watch, and often something new. Then you can leave it running and watch your own personalized channel.

You can try the prototype now as part of BBC Taster.

We used rapid development processes to make the application: it was made very quickly, the first version in a week and the current version in three weeks, so there are some bugs remaining.

Why it matters

We are regularly asked for lots of information about our likes and dislikes by companies, and the argument is that giving more of that sort of information improves the recommendations and the service they give us. We wanted to know the reverse – how little information do we need, in order to find something you might like? And can we find interesting things for you that you wouldn’t have watched otherwise?

BBC Shuffle is flexible enough to take account that you might want to watch different things at different times of the day (or on different days of the week) - or if you are watching with different people. This is because it starts from a state of no information about your preferences every time you use it. We think that as long as it converges to a good result quickly and with minimal interaction, then it’s acceptable to show you some “wrong” programmes, because the benefit is that you might see something interestingly new. It uses randomness a way to show you a wide variety of programmes.

It also taps into the idea that you might not know what you do like (you might not have come across it yet) – but you probably know what you don’t like fairly rapidly.

Our goals

We have been working on algorithms for recommendations for programmes on BBC iPlayer for several years, so we knew that we can give good suggestions to people based on a few likes and dislikes. The initial interface we used for this was a drag and drop application called Sibyl, which shows clearly how the underlying mechanisms work (you can try read more about Sibyl here).

We wanted to find a way to make this a low-effort, TV-like experience, and that's what BBC Shuffle represents.

The idea came from a workshop that we held at the start of the VistaTV Project. After the workshop, a small team of us with different skills made a very quick prototype, which we called "Infinite Trailers" – the idea was that you would see clips of programmes and then at the end of each one you could choose to play it or not, and we used an internal tool, Snippets, to get the clips.

How it works

The current iteration uses iPlayer to play the video. Both versions use privacy-preserving client-side recommendations developed by Chris Newell, based on work originating in the MyMedia Project.

BBC Shuffle was developed as part of the VistaTV project by various people. For the current version, Andrew Nicolaou did all the visible development work and integration with iPlayer, and Chris Newell worked on the recommendations. Joanne Moore helped us understand what we needed to test, and Lianne Kerlin and Joanne helped us interpret the results. The first version ("Infinite Trailers") was made by Andrew Wood (designer), Dan Nuttall (back-end developer), Anthony Onumonu (front-end developer), Chris Newell (APIs and data) and Libby Miller (producer). Tristan Ferne and Andrew McParland have helped us shepherd the application to its current state.

Outcomes

We have done a small amount of user testing and found some interesting things: for example, the starting point at first was most popular programmes on iPlayer – but that annoyed people because those were nearly always the same. EastEnders is always very popular for example, but if you are coming to a service that learns about you, and you've already told it you didn’t like a programme, then it is annoying to be shown it again. Obvious perhaps, but it’s not easy to be objective about features without testing it on real people.

We also found out that it is difficult to do this kind of continuous video play on mobiles and tablets in any consistent way - you need to write an application rather than use a web page.

Many people also want a "back" button or equivalent: this seems to have to do with the way people make choices over what to watch - they spend a certain amount of time searching and then satisfice over that set - so the best might be the one of the previous options. If we do more development on Shuffle, this is something we'll look at.

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