'rebooting' the BBC homepage

BBC Director General Mark Thompson presented his plans for future BBC strategy today, in what he called 'Creative Future'. Most of the best coverage was over on Media Guardian, which carried Thompson's speech in full (registration required) and many followup articles. Most of the mainstream media, eg this morning's London Metro newspaper, had picked up from the pre-publicity the news that Grandstand is to be axed (surely not all that controversial). Newsnight correspondant Paul Mason blogged the presentation as he watched it over the BBC's internal broadcast network (strangely his blog is linked to from the previous BBC news article, although not via permalinks). I managed to start a Two Pints of Lager... slagging-off thread on one of Paul's posts - a vox pop of working class people is shown - which is surely to be encouraged. The internal broadcast was also reported by eyedropper, who described it as 'part corporate video - part propaganda'.

Anyhow, onto the meat of the strategy. We only have to wait for the first of Thompson's 'big themes' for him to mention 'Web 2.0' (see, even the BBC big cheese must read and get hyped by the blogosphere). So this means a project called 'BBC Web 2.0', opening up the website to user generated content and including more audio visual content.

There's also a competition, launching tomorrow, which will invite users to redesign the BBC home page. The competition will be part of reboot:BBC.co.uk (another catchy name there), where they're inviting you to take the homepage 'all the way back to the drawing board'.

It's a brave move. My friend Martin Belam, who used to work on the BBC homepage, spent many a blog post detailing how the homepage is extremely sensitive to change and internal pressures, so to throw it open to a complete rehaul is a bold move. Of course, the really brave decision though is in choosing which of the designs to run with.

The competition hasn't properly launched yet (the 'submit your design' button currently doesn't do anything), and there aren't yet any guidelines as to what kind of 'design' they're looking for. I expect that any specifications will be kept short and vague - the aim after all is to generate ideas - but I wonder whether most entries will focus on the design aspect of the page, any interactivity, or the information architechture.

I'm currently working on two projects that involve homepage designs, so the role and function of homepages is something I've been thinking about a lot. The current BBC homepage (which Martin describes on the reboot blog) serves the role of showing that the BBC website is hugely deep and varied well, but it's also fairly bland and corporate (I've moaned about the boring blueness for ages and was much more a fan of the old colour-changing homepage).

One clue towards the motivations for wanting a new homepage comes from an interview with Ashley Highfield (BBC head of New Media) in New Media Age, quoted in another reboot blog entry. Ashley says they want a 'personalised' homepage. Personalisation first came into fashion when 'portals' were the Next Big Thing, and the BBC even had one with MyBBC (which was axed a few years ago). Now with the Web 2.0 trend and RSS feeds and stuff, the concept is starting return, although perhaps in a slightly different form. 'Personalisation' always seems to be something that high-up bosses call for (as well as flashy stuff), and I'm not sure quite what it would mean for the BBC homepage (or any homepage for that matter).

One of the uses of a website homepage is as a reference point. As the homepage is (usually) easy to find, you can describe to your friends how to visit a bit of a website by telling them to 'go to the homepage and click on the bit on the right'. Homepages are often also given the metaphor of being the front page of a newspaper or magazine - with the main headlines plus teasers as to what's inside. This gives 'being on the homepage' a sense of importance, both for internal staff and for your users. If the main promo or headline that you can see is different from the one your friend can, then you lose some of the communality that comes from a static homepage. Whilst media viewing is increasingly becoming disaggregated and splintered, the BBC is still managing to put out some big programmes that bring audiences togather: Planet Earth, Doctor Who, big news events, etc.

That said, there's clearly a role for personalised elements within a homepage and other top-level pages. The current BBC homepage already personalises for location, using the 'Where I Live' panel and the UK / international versions. There's probably scope for bringing some of the community content up to the homepage - showing you some of the newest replies to threads you're posting in on the messageboard for example, or giving you the latest from any of the community websites you're involved with, like Action Network or collective. Other areas for personalisation might be in TV and radio areas, or in bringing up some deeper level news stuff that you're interested in (I'd keep a main headline visible to everyone though).

I'll be following the competition with interest then (it looks like the submitted designs will be viewable on the website). The danger with the competition is that it might just end up being all about shiny looking designs, but at least they're not asking people to vote on them! Hopefully too the blog will provoke some deeper discussions about what the homepage is for and what kind of things it should do.

Unless they're accepting hastily-drawn wireframe sketches though, I won't be entering myself. Besides, I've got homepages of my own to worry about...