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Tuesday 1 April 2008

BBC News redesign: Can someone powerful please yell at them?

The BBC News website is extremely popular, so it's not surprising that yesterday's BBC Internet blog post about it's redesign attracted over 1000 comments - this must be a record?

The News Website Editor, Steve Herrmann, explains the changes in terms of doing some research and asking people what they wanted changing (and heard what it appears they wanted to hear):
But it was also clear from the feedback we got that there were others who thought the site design could do with a bit of a revamp – something we’d been thinking about doing for a while.
The specific changes he focuses on are:
  • the changed width - because 95% of screens are wider
  • more open design - to make it easier to scan
  • new masthead - which is about cross-site branding
  • bigger images - from user feedback and 'the power of pictures in telling stories on the web'
  • space for adverts - for the international audience
  • space for embedded media
  • incorporation of TV and radio current affairs content
Several of these make sense in terms of usability issues which have been known about and well understood for years - such as better use of pictures.

A number of comments from other developers than me point out that the accessibility was obviously not a factor in the redesign, not just in terms of requiring that it meet WC3 but that it appears it wasn't cross-browser tested. A redesign should be improving accessibility.

This is truly unacceptable and I hope the accessibility movement and organisations for disabled people scream their tits off about it. The BBC is in a leadership role with its website and it has huge resources. Someone, somewhere decided to ignore this. Who were they? Was it Herrmann?

I had a quick look at the very prominently featured 'accessibility help' and it's a link to 'my web my way', which is about 'the web', not the BBC News website.

This features a 'change colours and text size' button - absent on the website and a lot of 'rah rah' for the BBC from selected disabled comments. I understand that it is better than other websites and that many disabled users are grateful for some attention, but when most commercial websites pay no attention and - for me - when Council + Whitehall websites (which are the best) get hauled over coals when they're not 100% perfect the BBC can indeed 'do better' (as they would undoubtedly put it).

A number of other comments point to a design-led rather than user-led process, such as the choice of the Verdana font, unfluid design and the wasted top banner space.

I would add a couple of things to what others have already said which add to the design-led feeling.

1. Because of the redesign, the left-side navigation bars are now too close together. Combined with the on-focus colour change this would definitely cause issues for users who have trouble using a mouse - it fails 'the mom test'. I don't know what's gained from keeping the on-focus, either.

2. Removing links from the page is design-centred rather than user-centred. This pushes people towards search, which is an issue for most sites to do well and certainly is not very good on the BBC site. This is why you always need alternative navigation routes, like a site map. I know from doing this process that there is always pressure to remove links but when you test you can easily make both an 'uncluttered' look'n'feel, which is really about removing visual distraction, as well as providing more options both for navigation and content. Look at the Guardian's recent redesign - does that look 'cluttered'? Everything about the redesign process as explained appears to be dominated by this idea.

Overall, I'm disturbed that, from the BBC's presentation of it's News site redesign it's fairly clear that it wasn't led by usability - making the website more useful - but a whole lot of other factors which pushed user-focus aside. Changes aren't explained in terms of testing results and rarely about becoming more useful. I can imagine what actually happened from the mentions in the BBC blog post about some of those other factors, as well as from previous blog posts which mention terrible ideas like coding from photoshop designs - the very essence of being 'design-led'.

In the first response to the blog comments by the head of 'design and user experience', none of the accessibility issues are responded to and the 'technical' issues are referred to the 'technical team'. She also gives the very strong impression of being prepared to change design elements from blog responses and this response in particular really makes me think they're 'design-led':
We added the extra white space because a number of users told us, through surveys, listening labs and usability tests, that the previous design was starting to look "cluttered" and "busy".
This isn't the language of someone responding to test results and producing a user-led redesign - or even, to cut her some slack, of someone communicating process to non-tekkies.

Unfortunately, I am all too familiar with how this happens and how this works having fought too many losing battles - power and who has it is an real issue in defending the bloody user in web design.

That an organisation the size of the BBC is still behaving in web development this way in 2008 requires someone powerful outside the BBC to yell at them to do this stuff properly. Perhaps Cameron could add this to his BBC websites critique? And perhaps someone could do a FOI request for the process documentation so we can see exactly who's responsible rather than make educated guesses?

Dan G has more:
Something very strange is happening in the BBC webdesign department.

One of his comments takes him to task for his own coding and design - so I expect something similar.

Just to say, I don't care. It's a bit ad hominem ... (although I am interested to know if something plain isn't working, which I understand can be the case with some video servers).

I had one of these to my post 'BBC Blogs: Why bother?', which got hundreds of visits via the BBC Blog post which specifically mentioned it.
Please have a Flash bypass (you do not have it now) as there are many businesses, mine included, that will not allow Flash. Without the bypass we will not be able to see your videos.
Flash tracks, by IP address, every use of it and puts the information together into a report for its subscribers. Please show some respect for the intelligence and privacy of your readers.
I am glad to see you finally got rid of the 3cm wide blank band near the top.
I will investigate this but it's news to me (I don't read all the technical news all the time), so it's not about disrespect. Further, the past design was Blogger off-the-shelf. This one is 'off the shelf' tweaked. Did I ever claim it was perfect? And I'd rather spend time researching posts than - basically - fussing with design or coding in order to impress, who?

I would say that a business blocking Flash is stupid. Video is a business tool and to over-block (to stop YouTube time-wasting) is short-sighted. Sounds like someone was sold a filter package and they didn't tell them what the side-effects would be — all too familiar.

More about that in this post: How to disable web filter software.

Update: The BBC Sports Editor has commented further here.
Our audience research cannot just be confined to this blog. We have been working for months to develop an approach that works for our users and gives them a more dynamic sport website, now and in the future. This was considered research and usability testing - which was used by a team of technical, design and editorial experts to help define this new-look website.
But how was it used? And what happened with accessibility?

And this post is sitting prominently in the 'blog reaction' column next to the reactions post on the BBC Internet Blog, sending me hundreds of hits again. And I'm not getting any furiously disagreeing readers ...


  1. "One of his comments takes him to task for his own coding and design - so I expect something similar."

    -- is that directed to me?

  2. Oh, sorry, I got you now. I hadn't looked at the comments to my owb blog post!

  3. Well done Paul for highlighting the debacle of the BBC's re-design.

    I'm struggling to understand how they could have got this so very, very wrong.

    As you say, it appears to have been a purely appearance-led design process, rather than functional- or usability-led process.

    But it doesn't even look good, and far worse still, the previous exemplary usability has been thrown out too.

    The result is a shambles that looks like it's been designed by a child, and rolled out in a random bitty fashion that conveys the image of no one being in control at all.

    Well, someone very senior there has to get a grip on this, and quickly. One dreads to think how much taxpayer's money has been squandered producing this utter rubbish.

  4. I agree completely that this redesign like so many newspapers seems to be for no practical purpose other than to change the look and in my view make the site worse as a result.
    Who on earth sanctioned this at the top of the BBC and how much did all this cost??> No wonder the licence fee goes up and is never enough. When money is being spent on pointless exercises like this it is clear to see where the money goes.

  5. "And I'd rather spend time researching posts than - basically - fussing with design or coding in order to impress, who?"

    I have apologised for not realising it was the 'out of the box' design. However, I find your remark bizarre, with that logic, surely the BBC should be spending their time and money on their journalism rather than their design?

  6. Responding to Laura.
    Noone is saying the BBC should not pay attention to design, but the design was very very good before. If it were not then you would be right to say the design should be altered and improved. But so many people liked it as it was, and I am not aware of anything which actually had to be "fixed". so it has to count as a totally non-necessary cosmetic makeover, and at some significant cost.

  7. the worst thing is that at the same time as desktop displays got bigger, more smaller portable devices are appearing, used particularly by travelers, surely a sig. set of of users of the BBC news site. Try using the new site on an iPod or eeePC. Its gone from good to awful. China recently allowed the BBC back through the firewall, only for the BBC to make the site much less usable. Perhaps a deal with Beijing??

    BTW I note the BBC blog no longer seems to be working for adding comments, wonder why?

  8. All I think needs to be said is BBC news - best viewed in Netscape 4.1!

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