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the recommendation trap: iPlayer

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I am a bit obsessed by ‘when recommendations go wrong’ scenarios like the JustRabbitHutches incident.

iPlayer hasn’t done anything that silly, but it does seem to struggle with the recommendation concept. They sit particularly uneasily alongside the new Favourites functionality.

When the latest incarnation was in beta, I was quite excited by the prospect of favourite programmes and categories functionality. This had the potential to meet some of the needs that the absence of sophisticated browse function left. If I could tailor the content more then I’d need to browse less.

But the new site makes surprisingly little use of the favourites functionality. After you’ve put the effort into setting your favourites, it pretty much ignores all the work you’ve put in.

The favourite programmes bar is always closed. The favourite categories are similarly always closed. The radio stations box doesn’t remember your selection.

The homepage is dominated by four sections: Featured; For You; Most Popular; and Friends. None of these areas seem to be influenced by your own preferences.

Featured is rarely of interest to me but I get the editorial need to have some promo space.

For You is where the recommendations kick in but at least initially I had no idea what this section was supposed to be doing. A good design pattern is to explain recommendations ala Amazon and to let you know if there is anything you can do to make the suggestions better.

Most Popular is ok for me. Occasionally my interests overlap with the majority and then this spot is useful. Friends might be occasionally interesting, although “a people like you like” might have been more valuable. It seems a bit odd for the area to persist if you don’t login/specify any friends.

All these sections are potentially useful but the best predictor of my interests is my interests. It seems that in this design My Favourites and My Categories are given lower emphasis than *everything* else.

This is compounded by the presence of the For You section. As another commentator put it:

“why on earth would the site suggest I watch Eastenders? It’s been on TV for over 25 years and I’ve never once felt inclined to watch it, so what intuitive masterstroke has been developed to think that I may now wish to start?”.

Once you give recommendations personal labels like “For You” then people start to take your recommendations personally.

I’m annoyed that I told iPlayer what I like and it still insists on telling me that BBC 3 sitcoms are “for you!”. It’s started reminding me of my grandad and that’s not a flattering comparison.

Written by Karen

November 9th, 2010 at 6:30 am

Posted in bbc,recommendations

the new job

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Lot’s of people are asking how the RNIB compares to the BBC.

My journey is much better for one thing, shorter and simpler. That has a surprisingly big impact on how happily the day goes. Judd Street is also a delight compared to White City- there’s coffee shops, restaurants, bookshops, and loads of parks. Favourite so far is St George’s Garden. Oh and the British Library and the Brunswick Centre are both just a stone’s throw away.

There’s something more office-y about the job. Office wear is smarter, people start and leave earlier, and weirdly quite a number of websites are blocked. That’s quite a change from having porn permissions at the BBC (to monitor the BBC’s websearch, of course).

I’m hands on again, in a very intense way at the moment. As the lone IA there’s lots to do. I thought I might miss the sense of community of a big UX team but the virtual community of other SharePoint and charity IAs has helped loads.

Pleasant surprises were the lack of locked down desktop and Firefox installed as standard.

Something I hadn’t thought about was the extent to which the BBC is a visual culture. At the RNIB  email is plain text as a matter of policy, sketching is rare in meetings and documents are printed in 14 point.

Which makes practicing IA a different kind of process and a topic I expect I’ll be returning to many times.

Written by Karen

October 10th, 2008 at 6:00 am

Posted in bbc,rnib,work

highs and lows of seven BBC years

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  • the MWB time, our horrible office above Holborn station. Broken windows that were never fixed, no meeting rooms, the place just oozed depression. But mostly for the sense that we’d become the BBC department that time forgot. And our project getting cancelled.
  • Daveys. For the prices, but also for the wine. If I’m honest I dislike the place mainly for the memory of Sandra, Anoushka & myself drinking far too much one night – courtesy of Tony Ageh’s generosity. Luckily no Pudsey’s were stolen on this occasion, just a certain amount of pride damaged.
  • Reorganisations. One every two years. You can set your watch by it.


  • Bush House bar: My first job where there was a bar on site, with tiger print sofas and an aquarium no less. I met most of the BBC developers here but also my future husband.
  • The search project, in Mortimer Street. Working in the attic about the BBC films office, Tom gave us all Starbucks vouchers to ease the pain of being kicked out of Bush House. We had the web-dev dream team of Martin, Gaynor, Lee, Tim, Mark, Matt, Murray, and Iain. I’ve been to four of their weddings, although I’m kind of cheating as I had to be at Iain’s…being the bride and all that. There was even a toaster. We launched on time and happily too.
  • Mags & the beginnings of BBC IA. Margaret Hanley started my IA career off, giving me a job and packing me off to IA summits. She still pushes me to do more and I kind of treat her as my real boss even all these years after she left the BBC. She also kicked off the runaway success that was to be the BBC IA team. I inherited her creation.
  • The IA team cAug 2008. I’m stupid to be leaving this lovely, talented bunch. Bound to cry.

Written by Karen

August 20th, 2008 at 6:38 am

Posted in bbc

moving on

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This is my last week at the BBC. Next week I’ll start my new job at the RNIB in Kings Cross.

I’ve seen lots of people quit the BBC for the wrong reasons. Or at least they don’t resolve those problems with their first new job (the spring board job). The only things you are guaranteed to get when you leave a job are the tangible things, the kind of stuff that is written in your contracts.  So I will definitely be getting:

  • a much, much shorter commute
  • less money, although pretty much the same benefits otherwise
  • no working in the office over the weekends or late nights (they shut the place up)
  • a greater variety of places to eat at lunchtime
  • to be working for a charity, working for a goal worth getting out of bed for
  • proximity to the British Library
  • an office with purple floors

This really distills down to “closer to home, for a charity”.

Tangible sacrifices:

  • I won’t have a community of IAs immediately around me (although I have high hopes for regular coffees with the lovely folks at the Wellcome Trust in Euston)
  • I won’t be managing people (one of my favourite things about my BBC job)
  • My projects will be lower profile
  • I may end up less well-read (because of the shorter commute)

My intangible but realistic hopes:

  • get some energy back. A shot in the arm
  • to work with a lovely team of people
  • re-apply stuff learnt at the BBC
  • learn new things
  • to unravel a new organisation and the way it works

I won’t be expecting to get unambiguous and stable strategy, respect that doesn’t have to be earned, and to get away from decision making I disagree with. But I think lots of people fall into that trap.

Written by Karen

August 18th, 2008 at 6:40 am

Posted in bbc,career,rnib

How Buildings Learn – TV series

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Steward Brand has posted the six part BBC series of How Buildings Learn on Google Video.

(The BBC’s White City building features. Brand says of it that “basic daylight is an unattainable luxury”. It isn’t greatly beloved by staff but I’ve never had to work in it much. My current base, the Broadcast Centre, is a bit bland and boxy but mostly comfortable and functional. Television Centre and Bush House were both more inspirational buildings but quite flawed as places to work. The shape of TVC is distinctive but also enables you to literally go in circles when lost. )

Written by Karen

August 7th, 2008 at 6:50 am

Posted in architecture,bbc,office

my homepage modules wishlist

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I’m very happy with our customisable homepage. There’s no sport anymore for me, weather has top billing, and science & history get more space than they used to. Wimbledon was a useful addition over the last fortnight.

What I want from future releases is:

  • A food box with a recipe search + the latest recipes + any reasons to celebrate with food that day.
  • The week on TV at 9 o’clock at glance. That’s the only time I really watch much so it would be good to see it all in one go. And I’ve only BBC1 & 2 anyway.
  • Gardening box with plant(s) of the day. Big shiny flower pictures, perhaps of something good to plant now and something that’s looking good right now .

But as we’re all about user centred design (well, most of the time!) my particular wants won’t decide what we get.

Written by Karen

July 7th, 2008 at 6:55 pm

Posted in bbc

an embarrassment of programme support

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For most of my BBC career, the website wasn’t really about TV & Radio. Discussion were filled with talk of news, sport, weather, recipe finder, GCSE Bitesize, initiatives like iCan and products like Connector, MyBBC, and search.

There were lovingly crafted programme showcases for the top shows like Eastenders and Doctor Who. And there was Radioplayer, well ahead of its time.

But most programmes had no coverage (a temporary schedule snippet notwithstanding) as I discovered in my first few weeks at the BBC. Part of my job was to respond to users who had emailed us via the ‘contact us’ link on the search engine. Query after query asked for information about a programme recently and not so recently seen or heard. We resorted to back catalogues of RadioTimes and lots of apologetically framed replies.

Now the situation is somewhat different, with a number of projects having re-homed programme content on the internet, mostly notably:

  • iPlayer 7 day catch-up, TV and Radio
  • Catalogue (currently offline) Text based records of the back catalogue, based on the BBC’s internal catalogue produced by Information and Archives
  • Archives Trial collections of archive audio, video and written material
  • Programmes A page for every programme from October 2007 onwards, some with embedded audio & video from iPlayer

Diverse teams tackling the original problem (no programme support) from slightly different angles and a more experimental, innovation-friendly culture has resulted in an information architecture headache. Part one of solving the resulting problem is integrating the data from Catalogue into Programmes. I’m sure that’ll be a cinch 🙂

Written by Karen

June 23rd, 2008 at 9:47 am

measuring the quality of IA

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I’ve been asked to come up with a quantitative measure of success for the information architecture of the BBC website. I won’t be solving this is one post.

Now I’m wary of this. We all know that what you measure goes up. There’s an anecdote (office myth?) about the days when site funding was tied to page impressions and some  (mis-guided) web producers redesigned their interactive quizzes so that each question was on a single page, resulting in higher page impressions.
At the same time, Martin’s been expressing doubts about the BBC Trust chosen metric for measuring the success of the BBC search:

“They state that internal referrals from the search engine are down to 19% of all search referrals from 24% the previous year. Now, of course, there are lies, damned lies, statistics and then web metrics, but I’m unclear that you can argue how ‘good’ or ‘useful’ a site search is from these figures.

People tend to use site search when they are lost or disorientated, not just when they are seeking a specific piece of information. You can use exactly the same figures to argue that nearly a quarter of people used to get lost on the site and had to resort to search, and now only a fifth do – that could equally suggest an improved navigation user experience rather than a deterioration of search quality.”

The attention from the BBC Trust on site search is helpful and correct. But the success metrics need to be chosen carefully else we could genuinely improve the quality of the search and still get marked down as having failed (likewise we could fail to improve the quality but the chosen metric might improve, resulting in pats on the back all round but no improvements for the users). So this stuff is v. important to get right.

But back to measuring the quality of the IA in general…

Our key metrics are reach, impact and appreciation i.e. lots of people spend lots of time on the site and like it so much they tell lots of other people that it was great.

Getting the basic IA right should reduce time spent on site as it would get people where they wanted faster. They would then be appreciative and tell other people, but their time on site might well go down.

But we could make it easier to get around and increase time spent by cross-selling – providing a clear contribution in meeting their expressed needs but also in showing them what else we have that they didn’t know about.

That bit is important because some of the research commissioned for the 2004 Graf review showed that members of the public who took part in the usability tests (and were hence shown lots of the BBC site) were angry that all this free content that their licence fee had funded was there and they didn’t know about it. Cross-selling is a public service duty not just commercial good-sense.

So good IA would mean short (what does this mean?) journeys to each piece of content AND a high number of pieces of content found (and used? and liked? in a single session?).

And what if they get BBC content elsewhere, in some syndicated form? Surely we’ve got to include that too? It might be different with each platform too…the potential for cross selling on mobile might be more limited, given the context of use and time people want to spend looking at content on their phones.

Written by Karen

June 13th, 2008 at 2:28 pm

happiness in managing metadata?

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I think around 12 IAs have had to manage our metadata system at one time or another.

One was not bothered by it, had no problems with the work. One other person found it satisfying and actually interesting. Everyone else seems to have found it limiting, frustrating, boring, degrading even. In the admittedly limited frame of IA, wireframes are sexier.

Maybe I’m odd but it was a task I found flow in. There was a rich repository of data to analyse, procedures that could be honed to perfection and theory that could be drawn upon. There were side benefits of learning new words (ungulates?) and watching the English language evolve (house-blinging?). It felt like a craft.

Now few of my colleagues were interested in what I was doing day-to-day but that had the benefit of no-one else meddling with it. So my success or failure on any given day was down to me. There’s a certain pleasure in that.

I also, to a reasonable extent, built my career on it. My first presentations and published articles were all formed by insights from being immersed in the metadata systems. Other people were working in the same space but for the most part they weren’t the same people who were standing up at conferences and talking.

So find it boring, by all means. But there’s opportunities there for the taking.

Written by Karen

June 13th, 2008 at 9:28 am

hiring: senior IA

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We’re looking for a permanent senior IA, preferably someone with:

  • In-depth knowledge of navigation design, metadata, content management and search systems
  • Experience promoting IA through public speaking, writing, teaching or community events

Job description and how to apply at the BBC jobs website.

(Some proportion of the Future Media & Technology department is relocating to Salford in 2011. That might include this role but we don’t know for sure yet. )

Written by Karen

June 11th, 2008 at 1:43 pm

Posted in bbc