What’s happened to the BBC Homepage?

Posted on June 4, 2010

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I should be more careful about what I write in future. Changes to the BBC Homepage this week make me wish I’d kept my mouth shut. The one element in the redesigned homepage I didn’t like has now disappeared.

It’s now down to me. Obviously. It’s actually down to technical problems (I think – see below). But it does provide a vision of how the future might be.

Take a look at this BBC Homepage screendump taken on the day of the Cumbria shootings (Wednesday of this week).

On the face of it, there’s nothing unusual.

The layout is pretty much the same as the beta homepage I blogged about before except for the missing stretchy promo panel (the new one implemented at beta stage) a few weeks ago. The right hand corner takes the lead and shocking story about Derick Bird. It’s a breaking news story. Unusual circumstances drive unusual layouts. That seems fair.

Only, I’m fairly certain this change of layout was introduced around the time the homepage experienced technical difficulties last weekend. Head of Homepage and Syndication Services blogged about it the other day. That blog entry doesn’t explain why the new promo area is missing, although there is a reference further down the page in the comments – from the Homepage Editor himself …

I’m the homepage editor. It’s also worth mentioning that the main stories and pictures at the top of the page – which are usually hand picked – have also been temporarily replaced with an automated news feed. The ongoing tech problems are likely to persist at least until Monday.

What’s the big deal?

From a personal perspective, the current “default” state of the BBC Homepage is a scary vision.

First it emphasises how everything on the page is completely feed driven. As a user I visit the page and see a Google-sque (almost customisable although not so) homepage. It’s like seeing a collection of RSS feeds thrown together on a page. That worries me.

It worries me because this is an entry point to a global brand. All I see is text on the page. Yes, I know that we’re serving up information. Yes I know that the internet is built on search and recommendation. But the BBC Homepage is an entry point. It’s a window. It’s a shop window.

If you think I’m talking rubbish and I’m just moaning because I’m a bitter old queen, then take a look at the Channel 4’s welcome this evening …

Channel 4 have gone for a massive splash across the homepage. They’re welcoming the user to the network first and foremost, promoting their big show (with an equally big image) not forgetting to exploit their key talent and most respected output – Jon Snow and Channel 4 news.

Over on ITV, Rio Ferdinand is either squinting in the sunlight or wincing because of his injury. Either way it’s communicating the big news and (slightly less successfully than Channel 4’s homepage it has to be said) providing a visually arresting homepage. The colours save the eye from the preponderance of white. Sure, the adverts jar. But ITV is engaging me. Interesting to see that multi-tab function subtly offering different content – a bit like the BBC did before the technical errors.

Finally, there’s Five.TV whose website I’ve never been to before, but I’ve recently warmed to as a network because of their stylish on-screen idents. Five are using a similar tabbed approach to the old BBC homepage. The presence of the promo still lifts the page even if the overall design isn’t satisfying.

The present technical difficulties impacting customisation and the missing top promo area demonstrates how vital that promo area to the BBC website as a whole, not only in terms of its positioning amongst its competitors, but also in digging out key pieces of online content which is unique and engaging as well as offering a refreshing way of promoting the BBC’s core proposition – broadcasting radio and television.

Without that promo area the BBC homepage loses character. It’s replaced by a sea of text and a colour scheme which makes me feel less enthused. It drains me when I look at it. The page feels unloved. It’s as though technology has usurped design.

I’m not a design purist. I’m not a design snob either. I like my information. I have an appetite for it. And I’m impatient. But as a consumer I also want to be persuaded into watching something. I don’t want to be pointed to something which has already been broadcast which I can catch up on iPlayer. I want to be directed to something which is being broadcast this evening because (I’m not showing off here) I’ve got 42″ inches of HD plasma and I absolutely want to watch decent stuff as it’s broadcast.

Importantly, I want someone to pick out stuff from the sea of content to be broadcast and that which has been broadcast and tempt me into watching it. Yes, I could get a machine to do it for me – customisation (when the problems are fixed) – and I could also get my friends to recommend stuff for me as well via Facebook (although to be honest I do need to ween myself off social media – its getting WAY too much) . I still need a glossy brochure picture in the same way I like a billboard poster.

If I was to be foolhardy, I’d say that if I was planning a career on the basis of page design, I’d feel as though Channel 4 was my new home.

Mind you, I’d be an idiot to think such a thing. I’ve love the BBC. And this is just a technical hitch – one I’m sure the technical drones are working very, very hard to resolve.

Personally, I can’t wait until they do. I like pictures me. Especially big ones.

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Posted in: Internet