Work I’m conducting at the New South Wales Department of Education and Training has given me cause to reflect upon a series of projects conducted by the BBC since 2001 around improving the holistic user experience of the organisations websites, i.e. creating some ‘glue’ to hold the experience together both navigationally, visually and contextually.
Pre-2001 the BBC’s web presence was frequently referred to a loose collection of GeoCities, i.e. a very loosely bound collection of disparate looking websites.
The major problems affecting the site at this time were:
- Lots of individual websites each with their own look and feel, but no brand or navigational consistency between sites
- Little or no referencing between related content owned by different areas of the organisation (information silos)
- Incomplete content, duplication of content and/or partial duplication of content resulting in lack of clarity around any individual site as being a definitive source on any topic
- Limited collaboration between areas of the business
- Ineffective search
In short, a highly decentralised approach to commissioning, designing and maintaining their web presence. And all this in the early 21st Century from an organisation generally heralded for their innovative approach to the adoption of new technologies. What hope for the rest of us?
These issues are far from unique to the BBC. In fact, nearly every organisation employing more than 100 staff suffers from these problems on their intranet, but commercial imperatives often force companies to mend organisational fractures where their public-facing internet site is concerned.
Why I’m blogging about the BBC is that, rather uniquely, they were actually affective at addressing the problems, and what’s more there are lots of great morsels around the internet about the projects they undertook.
Decentralisation or centralisation
Many organisations when presented with the same set of problems oscillate wildly between the polar extremes of a highly decentralised or highly centralised web presence.
A common response is to:
- Chastise those that own the sites and take ownership away from them
- Mandate that all sites must use a consistent set of templates/designs
- Put in place an approval workflow process that involves sign-off by some Machiavellian Mr (or Ms. or Mrs) Big figure who knows what is right and wrong
This centralised approach chugs along for a few months or years until:
- People realise that many of the rogue sites have reappeared
- Content owners are so disenfranchised by the rigours of the mandated processes that they no longer care about the content and are watching is get out of date
- Content owners lose touch with the flourishes that can only really be applied when you have direct control over the presentation of information
- The central resources who are entrusted as guardians of the site become a bottle-neck to the timely delivery of content
After a few more months or years the organisation, almost certainly under new internet leadership, asks itself why on earth did we impose central control? And they actively work to break down the central controls, liberate the sub-sites and the whole sorry saga starts over again.
The BBC took a very different approach. Through a series of projects they created a small core set of centrally created and maintained resources, they mandated a small number of “thou shalt” diktats, and generated a far larger number of recommendations and principles.
Some of the projects the BBC embarked on were:
- The redesign of the BBC homepage. This project is commonly referred to as The Glass Wall project. The PDF tells the story around the redesign project.
- An overhaul of the search engine to enhance findability around the entire network of sites, i.e. federated search. Matt Jones’ excellent presentation on the project, BBCi Search: Why search is not a technology problem, is a great source of information on the project and the problems it was designed to resolve.
- The development of a topic-based A-Z to replace the previous categorisation structure based on the structure of the organisation. Helen Lippell’s article on Boxes and Arrows, The ABCs of the BBC provides a case study of this project
- The creation of a consistent masthead and footer to be applied on every BBC site.
- The definition of a set of design and other guidelines for all BBC sites. The most up-to-date incarnations of these can be found at the BBC’s website.
General overviews of the projects can be found in a couple of papers from Martin Belam, Managing ‘glue’ at the BBC and Gaining online advantage: Building an effective web presence in a large organisation.
As well as these specific projects, they also defined a series of principles, as detailed by Tom Loosemore on his Tomski blog, The BBC’s Fifteen web principles.
The result of these projects and initiatives is what I’ll refer to as light-touch centralisation. By this I mean a series of common, centrally created elements that appear across all websites. They provide an environment in which the local sites can be visually diverse, and yet have enough consistent and commonality that end-users don’t have to re-learn each and every site.
Many elements have evolved since their initial inception, but the lineage of these projects can still be seen across all current BBC sites. For example, sites as diverse as Top Gear, BBC Learning and BBC News have a brand and navigational consistency, yet maintain a visual freedom that enables them to look consistent, but radically different.
Any organisation looking to break free from the decentralised | centralised yo-yo would be fools not to at least explore these projects in more detail.
I consulted to the BBC on user research and user centred design during some of the period while these projects were conducted. Certain of my observations are based on my memory and hearsay. I thank Anthony Colfelt (who worked for the BBC at the time) and Phil Barrett (who consulted alongside me during this period while we were both at Flow Interactive) for pointing me in the direction of many of the materials referenced here.