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.

Five nines? No nines at all, more like

Twitter error message

A very long time ago I ran a web-based email service (allow me to tell you about it one day). It was moderately successful and, before the latter unpleasantness it had well over a million users and substantial traffic and brand awareness. I learnt one really big lesson from that particular experience, though: never run an email service. It’s a mug’s game. The problem is that email is essential infrastructure.

For email users it’s like dial-tone. Pick up the phone: if you don’t hear dial-tone what do you do? Do you say: “Hey, no problem, I’ll try later”? No. You say “what the fuck’s wrong with the phone?” “Hey everybody! the phone’s out!” “Shit. Did society collapse? Was there a nuclear bomb?” and so on. No one is sanguine or relaxed about a phone outage. Likewise with email. If clicking ‘send’ doesn’t work first time or if you get no email at all for fifteen minutes you’re pretty soon popping veins in your neck.

Phone networks and email systems have to be reliable. In the telecoms world they call it ‘five nines’. They mean that a phone network has to up 99.999% of the time and they engineer their systems to deliver this. Email systems are now engineered to the same standards. And it’s not cheap because the 80/20 rule applies.

Keeping your network up for 80% of the time costs about 20% of your systems budget—piece of cake. The difficult final 20% costs 80% of your budget (and it’s actually probably more like 95/5). And that’s before you’ve spent a quid dealing with the legion of bottom feeders firehosing your servers with spam. Like I said, it’s a mug’s game. And this explains why email provision is consolidating fast and why even big in-house systems are being outsourced to specialists.

Which brings me to Twitter. As you know, Twitter’s clever for all sorts of reasons. I’ve gone on about Twitter here before: I think it’s the most important application to appear on the Internet for years—possibly since the web itself. Seriously, I do. But it’s especially clever because the Twitter experience has been engineered so that users aren’t really bothered if it’s not working. Even big users (I would count myself as a big user) can live without it for a few hours, even for a day or two.

Nobody uses Twitter for anything important and, although it supports direct messages between users, it’s principally about the buzz of daily life—so even a longish period of extreme flakiness like the one we’ve just seen barely spoils the experience. Twitter’s remarkable achievement is to be important enough to produce addiction but nowhere near important enough to produce a phone call to the complaints department. Twitter’s a long way from five nines and it doesn’t matter at all.

All the world’s a blog

Ravings of a recent convert

When you think about it, everything’s a blog. Blog-form seems to be very basic – large parts of the web can be neatly analysed down to blog-form. It (obviously) took me years to figure this out but the original bloggers understood it instinctively. Once you remember that the web is and was always meant to be a post and publish medium, that TBL’s first web client was a combined editor-browser (who first took the editor out? Was it Andreesen? Microsoft?), you can begin to imagine the whole web refigured as a blog.

My day job (cult favourite easily decomposes into a dozen or so discrete blogs – Robin even thinks you could present the email itself in blog format (is that stretching it a bit?). I can see a toggle on every page: blog view-standard view. Logging in essentially opens your editing interface. When you’re composing an email you’re just posting to our mailblog. Your inbox becomes a threaded, reverse-chronological web site – a blog. Very few web sites are not amenable to this way of thinking. Very few don’t meet the ‘post and publish, new posts at the top’ entry qualification. Can you imagine the entire web remade in blog-form? Have I lost it entirely?

(Incidentally, TBL’s Weaving the Web is a thrilling read and a useful reminder of the web’s founding principles).