Comments on the new BBC Homepage

The BBC took its new homepage out of beta this morning, by making it the default (and only) view of bbc.co.uk. I have the BBC homepage as the 'start' page of my browser, and whilst I've already seen this new design, I didn't bother to switch to the new design at its beta location (which confusingly is still there at www.bbc.co.uk/home/beta/), so it was only today that I really started to explore it.

One of the first things I like about the new homepage is the retro analog clock in the top right corner. I can hardly claim to have a huge recollection of the original mechanical clock as broadcast, but I do remember staring at a similar clock broadcast on the BBC during daytime hours of school holidays, waiting for actual TV programmes to begin.

A general point to make is that the homepage is now a fair bit wider - optimised for a 1024 width screen rather than the now fairly uncommon 800 width screen. This simple expansion makes the page feel a lot more immersive and impactful.

One of the main new features of the new homepage is 'customisation' - there are now far more settings you can tweak and adjust. The idea behind this, I guess, is that different users are interested in different bits of the BBC, and so rather than trying to make one homepage that works for everyone, you can let people optimise it to suit their needs. Whilst this sounds good in theory, in practice people don't necessarily know in advance precisely what they're interested in, or have the inclination to spend much time editing preferences, so the trick is to find a good balance between useful customisations and content that's well targeted at people's general needs - which requires careful research and user-centred design.

Where the BBC have drawn the line is quite a long way towards full customisation, with the main exceptions being a promo space at the top - which still lets you flip between four bits of content - and a more traditional 'directory' at the bottom, which is minimisable but not removable or editable. This feels like a fairly reasonable balance to me, and I disagree with those who have criticised the glued-down promo spot. Whilst it's a large area of the page to be using up, I think it's important for organisations to be able to promote content that people may not otherwise have chosen to seek out. It also gives the BBC a place in which they can react to current events, such as an important breaking news story, or something that relates to the organisation itself, like a consultation on a new channel or a change in the licence fee.

As well as customisation, which I'll come onto in a minute, something the homepage tries to do is increase the amount of information which can be displayed on the page by hiding  extra content beneath stacks of buttons. So the main promo has four different displays, for example, the entertainment and news sections have three different lead stories, and the TV and radio sections have buttons for each of the channels and stations. Once inconsistency here is that the buttons in different sections behave in different ways. For news and entertainment, the buttons are activated on rollover (or 'hover'), and clicking takes you to the page of the relevant story. For the TV and radio sections, clicking a button reveals that section's information, and then clicking on the activated button again takes you to the relevant channel or station website. For the main promo, clicking the four buttons switches between the different promos, but never takes you to the relevant page - you have to click on the image above instead. So that's three different behaviours for essentially the same set of functionality. If I were to choose one, I'd have the buttons working on rollover only, and reserve 'clicking' for the action of navigating to a new page, as per the standard web convention. However, too many rollover actions could cause difficulties with people accidentally selecting buttons (especially those with motor difficulties or who are using awkward trackpads).

Customisation of the page works in no less than four different ways. Firstly, there's the wonderfully clearly labelled 'customise your homepage' button at the top (the term 'your homepage' helps to re-enforce a sense of control and ownership too). This lets you select which sections you'd like, and additionally now lets you set a permanent page colour, rather than having it switch to match your currently-selected promo (this was in response to feedback that this colour-switching behaviour is a little unexpected and can be annoying). I opted for a permanent orange for starters.

Next up is a location setter, which takes a post code or place name. This is pretty straightforward, but it's not made very clear what this location actually affects. There's also no permanent indication on the page what your current setting is, which might make it easy to forget to change it if you're on someone else's computer or have recently moved.

Then, most of the sections have their own edit button, allowing you to pick which sub-topics you'd like displayed. So Entertainment allows you to opt for Eastenders news, Doctor Who news or Lottery results. One problem here is that you have no idea what the options are before clicking edit, meaning that you have to pretty much try them all out just to see if there's anything good that you're missing, or if any new topics have been added. The next, more bizarre feature, is that having picked the topics, you can choose how many headlines to display from that topic by using buttons marked plus (+) and minus (-). This level of tweaking seems a bit ridiculous to me, and it's only from experimentation that you understand what the buttons do - I initially expected them to minimise and expand the sub-sections, following the language of the BBC News homepage.

The final level of customisations is to be able to move the sections about the page via a drag and drop interface. Whilst simple, this isn't hugely discoverable, as the only indication you get is the cursor changing whilst hovering over the section headers (on Windows the cursor is a four-headed arrow, but on a Mac it's a slightly less obvious open hand). A border also appears around the section, but only after a few seconds, and so I'd consider reducing this delay if possible.

There is one additional customisation that you can do, via the 'Display options' link at the very top left of the page. This changes the display of the whole BBC site though, which may confuse some users now that it's so close to the similar-sounding 'customise your homepage' button.

Overall I think that the level of customisation offered is a bit of an overkill, and some of the features could be dropped, however none of the customisation features gets in the way of the content very much, and the defaults on offer are pretty reasonable. It's worth noting that the customisations are all saved via a cookie, not a login. This is the right decision in that no-one wants to login to a site just to make a few customisations to the homepage, however it does mean that if you do make the effort to spend an hour or so tweaking the page to just how you want it, it's not that unlikely that you'll lose the settings accidentally at some point by clearing out the cookies or switching computers or browsers. For this reason, until the functionality to optionally save your homepage to a login is introduced, the amount of customisation should be limited.

One final comment is that the HTML markup of the page seems to be pretty clean, and the homepage also degrades nicely when javascript is disabled. Peformance-wise, I'm finding that some features of the page are a bit slow, but that might just be my computer.