Getting used to the new BBC Radio 4 web site

I know I work there so my impartiality is hardly to be relied on but I’m not a member of the design or tech teams at Radio 4 and I’ve only worked at the BBC for a few months.  I had nothing to do with the redesign and I’ve had no special tours or guidance so I met the new Radio 4 site at the same time as everyone else.

I’m a forty-year Radio 4 junkie (I was a small child but I can actually remember the day it stopped being the Home Service!) and I’ve used the Radio 4 site daily for years so I’ve been thinking about abusing my editor’s privilege and chipping in with my own experience of the site so far. I discussed this with some colleagues and everyone thought I ought to do it here, on my own blog, and not on the Radio 4 blog (where I’m editor) where the response to the new site has been almost universally negative and I might just wind people up.

To begin with, I’m enjoying exploring the new site. After a couple of weeks of wandering the corridors like the new boy, I’m getting it. I’ve been systematically trying out the different ways of finding programmes (partly because I’ve been ferreting out programmes for unhappy customers). Via the schedule; via genres and formats on the Programmes page; via home page promotions and also via thematic tags and it really does make sense.

Finding programmes. I’ve been finding myself clicking ‘Schedule‘ and jumping from day to day using the calendar, scanning for programmes available to listen to out of the corner of my eye (the bright pink iPlayer flag helps here – lovely bit of subliminal signage). For a pool of content as large as Radio 4’s (probably the largest of any radio station in the world, remember) this is fast and efficient navigation – probably my favourite way around the programmes. I can think of some improvements, though. I should drop into the schedule at the current time, for instance, so I don’t need to scroll.

I find genres and formats – which are a totally new addition to the site, inherited from the BBC’s wider information architecture – more difficult. It’s a bit of a pain to have to stop and think which genre a programme belongs to. And these categories are pretty baggy because they have to accommodate all of the BBC’s output, including television, so they often feel arbitrary or even contradictory. You’ll also find lots of empty ones, since quite a lot of them only work for television (‘Reality‘ and ‘Animation‘ for instance). I have enjoyed exploring the genres, though, with no particular object in mind, when I’ve had a minute to spare. This is how I discovered Stuart Hall’s lovely contribution to Great Lives on the ‘Discussion and Talk‘ page, for instance, when just kind of wondering what it was.

I’ve also been using the alphabetical lists under ‘Programmes‘ a lot and switching between ‘all’, ‘current’ and ‘available on iPlayer’ display modes depending on whether I’m looking for something to listen to or for something historic. There’s definitely something reassuring about knowing that absolutely everything is there (the catalogue of programmes on which the site is based is definitive) although that makes it doubly frustrating if I can’t play a programme when I get to it (as happened last weekend when there was a big iPlayer snafu).

Podcasts are much easier to find. I’ve already signed up for two that I didn’t know existed: Sunday and The Report and the integration with programme pages is much better – clear and predictable, so you’ll always know where to look for a programme’s podcast. A big improvement over the old, essentially random arrangement.

A lot of unhappy users have been lamenting the loss of the old ‘Listen Again‘ feature, which was essentially a jumbly list of most currently available programmes. I can see their point: it was a comforting sort of thing, like a worn sofa, and there’s no obvious replacement for it in the new site. I can exclusively reveal, though, that there’s a reasonable proxy here: a page that’s not actually linked to from anywhere in the site but which can be persuaded to display all currently available Radio 4 programmes on one page. I’ve bookmarked it.

Content. It’s frustrating to find ‘dead ends’ – programme pages that used to have lots of content but which now just have the automatically-produced stuff but it’s also quite exciting to anticipate how Woman’s Hour, Analysis, Crossing Continents et al will fill their new pages. They will now find it easier to do too, so we should see more interesting pages quite soon.

Leigh has pointed out that all the content from the old programme pages is still available via links at the top or side of each programme page but I’ve found myself jumping out and searching for programmes using Google’s site: syntax to drill into the site quickly (and there’s nothing wrong with Googling your way into a very large proportion of all traffic to BBC pages comes from search engines anyway).

Design. This one’s easy: almost anything would have improved on the old site: it was miserable, narrow and dark. In the two weeks since it went away I’m pleased to note that I can hardly remember it. Good riddance (with appropriate acknowledgment to the many good people who laboured in its sepulchral confines over the years: it was a great web site five or six years ago!).

On the new site, I love the chunky and open top-third of the page especially – makes browsing a pleasure – and I think it’s an excellent opportunity to give the BBC’s awesome picture archive some room. I’m really looking forward to seeing this new space used creatively. I’m intrigued to note that it took me a while to notice the content right at the top of the page, though – above the Radio 4 logo – including the vital ‘ON RADIO 4 NOW’ and the little green plus sign that reveals what’s on next.

When you’re using a browser these days the top inch or so of your screen is all horizontal bars – menus, bookmarks, navigation and search, plus various plug-ins and add-ons. It’s easy to lose additional horizontal bars. I think I was unconsciously assigning these page elements to the browser because of their horizontal orientation. I wonder if the design team will consider giving them a more prominent look.

Summing up: there are some frustrations – especially in the loss of content and archives – but I’m enjoying the new site and I think the new design and architecture are a clear improvement. Programme makers and interactive teams now have a really useful framework for their content. All they’ve got to do now is fill it with good stuff.