BBC News Website 2.0: gradient fills, curved corners and personalisation

Anyone who reads the BBC News website, which in the UK must include most internet users, will have noticed that they've made some changes to their homepage recently. The overall design and layout is the same, but several vaguely 'web 2.0' features have been introduced. Here's a snapshot of the new homepage:

One of the more superficial changes to have been made with this update is the introduction of a new set of audio/visual buttons. These now have curved corners and subtle gradient fills - which shows clear influence from 'web 2.0' websites, on which these mac-like design features are common enough to have become a signature of the trend. As well as the design tweak, the labels on the buttons have also changed to reflect the activity of 'listening' and 'watching', rather than the formats 'audio' and 'video'. This small changes makes the labels more of a call-to-action, and makes it clearer what happens when you click the button - 'audio' or 'video' could be equally be interpreted as leading to downloading the content as to popping-up a player window.

New and old BBC news buttons, showing the old ones with the labels 'audio' and 'video', alongside the new ones with the labels 'watch' and 'listen'

The new style buttons, with the gradient fill and rounded corners, seem to have been introduced across the whole site, although some of the older news articles contain a mix of the new and old styles, presumably as some of the include files are more easy to update than others.

The main change to the website, however, is the introduction of several expandable/collapable modules on the BBC News homepage. The first three of these hold sections called 'video and audio news', 'tv and radio programmes' and 'most popular video and audio'. These sections are headed by a red bar, again with a gradient fill. On the right of these bars are the 'show +' / 'hide -' buttons that expand and collapse the modules. For the sake of usability, I would have wanted the whole bar be clickable, so that you could click on the titles immedietly to display the content. Additionally, it seems odd that you can only have one section expanded at once - some people may well want to view more than one section at a time, and there's no reason not to allow this. If you're going to allow people to show or hide certain modules, you should let them do as they please rather than impose arbitrary contraints.

The ability to only have one of the modules open seems even more odd when you consider that there's another expandable module below containing localised content, which operates completely independently. This module prompts you to enter a postcode (annoyingly it can't your read your postcode from the main BBC homepage cookie), and then shows links to three local news stories and a two day weather forecast.

There's a longstanding argument over the level of personalisation that users need and want for reading news websites. On the one hand, personalisation theoretically allows people to see more of what they're interested, but on the other hand, there's nothing that annoys people more than the feeling that they're missing out on something. Indeed, the topic of personalisation has been a hotly contested one on Pete Clifton's 'From the editor's desktop' column. In one edition from last year, he quotes a reader, Graham Nelson, as saying:

"You mentioned that you're considering customising the news page to a 'My BBC News' kind of effect. Please don't! I don't want a news service which guesses what I might be interested in. One of the biggest services BBC News provides is to assess what events are important. It would be a pity to compromise that."

A couple of weeks later, he reported that "the vast majority of personalisation e-mails were against the idea. Fear not. We are not thinking of turning our service into a madcap 'have what you want on the front page service'".

In my (runner up-winning) entry in the BBC Homepage reboot competition, I opted to do no personalisation at all on the BBC news module, thinking that news was one area where the headlines should be relevant to most people. I did, however, introduce some local news into a local area module of the BBC homepage, so it's interesting to see that the BBC News website has also decided to start its personalisation offering with localisation.

The feature has only been on the BBC News site for a few days, and so far I'm only finding it moderately useful. Whilst I've clicked through to a couple of local stories I might not otherwise have found, the vast majority of headlines I've seen in the section either haven't been particularly interesting or haven't seemed particlarly local. Perhaps this is partly down to living in London. Lots of the news that makes national headlines happens in London, and as these stories often get added to the London index, the London headlines are often not too dissimilar from the national ones.

Another problem I find is that a disproportionate number of London stories are crime-related (muggings, stabbings, murders and so on). You can see this trend in the local London newspapers too, particularly in the East and South London papers, making them fairly depressing reading. I find it difficult to read crime stories, as there's only so much tragedy you can take, and the bigger international conflicts (crimes of war) seem to have a bigger significance, to be quite blunt.

Nevertheless, I do think there's a place for the local-area personalisation on the BBC News homepage, even for London-based stories. I would like to see the local-led stories being more feature-based, concentrating on local events, politics, initatives and person-based stories. This is more the kind of content which personalisation would be useful for, as they're the type of stories which are more likely to directly affect you, or to talk about someone or somewhere that you know well.

Currently, the BBC does produce these kinds of stories, but they're of mixed quality, and are usually produced by the Nations and Regions teams (who look after the local BBC station), which typically have small teams and budgets. Perhaps either these teams could be expanded, or the BBC could partner with external independent local news providers to fill the hole for this kind of content.

Overall, a noble attempt by the BBC News website team to pimp-up their website, web 2.0 style, but perhaps more thought should be placed on the type of content and how it's consumed, and less on the style and DHTML-functionality (although that's quite useful for impressing the bosses with).

I wonder what we'll see next from this relatively forward-thinking BBC team - del.icio.us -style bookmarking links or more user comments?