Learning from the BBC Sport redesign

One of the things I have admired for a while about the BBC Internet team(s) and now the GOV.UK (in caps ‘cos they mean business) is just how much of their thinking and processes they share openly on their blogs. In recent months the GOV.UK blog has been a regular source of answers and inspiration and I admire the fact that even amongst the challenging deadlines and rapid iterations so many of the team are encouraged to contribute to the blog.

This post isn’t about the GOV.UK stuff though (for a change!) instead it is about the recent changes to the website I have visited more than any other since the dawn of the world wide web and some of the lessons the BBC team has shared about their decision making and how I am learning from that.

BBC Sport is a site I have relied on for years. I have never switched my allegiance to Johnny come lately sites like Sky Sports News :) It is one of the pinned pages in my Chrome browser and I check in on it throughout the day – everyday.

It turns out it had been nine years since the Sports pages had been redesigned – and to be honest they were starting to show their age a bit. This became even more obvious when the News section went through its own redesign a while ago. The thing is that despite it looking a bit old school and having less than optimal navigation it was a site that many of us could use blindfolded so long had we used it and as such any changes were bound to attract comment.

On of my major personal netiquette rules is that I don’t rush to complain when sites redesign. This can be difficult with some companies [Facebook I'm looking at you] but in general I try and extend some semi-professional courtesy and give the sites a chance to grow on me.

So when the BBC announced they were planning on doing a major revamp of the Sport site I was prepared to bite my lip and bide my time.

When the site launched I had the initial bit of vertigo at the shock of the new but found myself with two contrasting opinions on the site. I found the actual content pages much improved. The layout and extra space give to the words really helps and the ‘related links’ are more obvious. That said I found (and find) the new homepage difficult and cluttered. There is just too much going on for me to cope with and I find myself avoiding this page now (which probably means I miss some stories I’d be interested in on more minority sports.)

Reading the series of posts that the Sports web team wrote though was very enlightening. It is clear that ‘live’ is very much the driving factor of the site and that is what their (considerable) user research has led them to. I think this is probably where I fall somewhat into the minority use case on perhaps that is why it doesn’t seem to work for me at the top level but improves when I drill down.

I have *very* little interest in getting live sports coverage from the BBC – I find all the ‘real time’ stuff distracting and a little irritating and nothing pisses me off more on the web than auto-playing video (though this has stopped thankfully!). I use the site to check results, occasionally read match reports, catch up on the big news but mainly to read the editorial comment pieces whether they be on the blogs or within the main structure. The Comment & Analysis section is still featured on the homepage but – to me at least – it seems a little buried and a particular victim of the ‘clutter’ I mentioned earlier.

So to resolve this I subscribed to the RSS of all my favourite BBC Sports bloggers for the first time and will in future just use the site for results, the occasional match report and whatever breaking news Twitter flags for me. Seems a decent compromise.

The main thing I was interested in from a work point of view was how they coped with the switch to horizontal navigation. This is something I am keen to do but as they acknowledge it does limit your options compared to the traditional left hand side vertical nav. They addressed this by making some tough choices;

“In order to make the navigation easy to use, we wanted to limit the number of items in the primary navigation to less than nine”

Given the amount of sports the BBC covers a list of nine (with one of them being ‘more Sports‘) was probably challenging but it does give me hope as that wouldn’t be a difficult list for us – however I would have been interested to read about how they decided to structure the navigation on the next level down.

That said the thought processes they have been through (and shared) about navigation and using ‘related links’ to promote content elsewhere in a Google driven world have been extremely helpful and their use of personas is going to force me to revisit that concept (although I remain unconvinced). Also the steps they took to validate the design are interesting with the levels of user involvement – plus I like the look of Axure very much so that is going into my next software shopping list!

So anyway I am very thankful to the Beeb for being so open – especially given the level of grief they get in the comments!

Then again – got to say I do hate the yellow!

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