BBC News redesign: hit or miss?
You tinker with national institutions at your peril! The redesign of the BBC News site has certainly got people talking, and the general reaction is not particularly good.
I didn’t realise quite how badly the new design was going down until I saw the latest BBC Editor’s Blog post which kicks off its response to readers’ comments with:
Reverting to the old design is not something we’re considering.
Ouch! Never good news when you’re having to directly rule that out at the start of your response. On top of that I found myself reading a blog post bookmarked by the BBC’s delicious feed that archly speculates “could the BBC News redesign be the saviour of newspapers” on the back of comments such as:
Day 2 of trying to use this new site has left me feeling ill and thoroughly grumpy and bad-tempered … If we don’t get old site back – perhaps as an alternative to the new one – then I’m seriously considering buying a daily newspaper again.
I’m finally cured of my addiction to the BBC News pages. I think it is called aversion therapy … Definitely time to start buying real newspapers again to read at my leisure in the sunlit garden.
Is this just a case of innovation unsettling people, and it will all settle down in a few weeks’ time like these storms in a teacup usually do? Remember the fuss about Facebook’s redesign last year, with reports that masses of users were about to quit the site in protest? Well, they never did – and Facebook has gone from strength to strength and just surpassed 500 million users. No one’s complaining about the design now – although you can bet that next time it’s changed, we’ll go through the whole cycle again.
So perhaps that’s just the same situation all over again with the BBC News site, exacerbated by the sense of ownership that many people have toward anything related to the BBC due to the license fee model of funding that makes us all “shareholders” to some degree.
As for myself, I can’t say I hate the new BBC site at all. It’s perfectly okay in many ways, certainly quite usable. And yet, as I tweeted last week:
Wondering why the new BBC news site isn’t sitting well w/me. It should do, but it’s just not; even tho’ it makes the old design look…old.
Certainly looking back at the old site that it replaced, the new design makes the previous one look cramped, dated and unambitious. But there’s something which even now just isn’t sitting well with me, and I have no sense of movement to indicate that I’m “adjusting” to it and getting close to reconciling my doubts.
That tweet generated more direct replies than almost single thing that I’ve put on Twitter before – again, indication of the strength of feeling and sense of ownership involved. Among the things that people seemed to rail against were the strident, tabloid-esque red banner (there’s a Safari extension you can get to remove that, courtesy of Robert Brook) and the typography which seems to attract particular ire.
Others say that it’s harder to find things on the page: I certainly find that, but it’s surely natural and inevitable with changes to any information-heavy site, and something I’m sure I’ll get used to. I’m finding I’m reading fewer stories on the site at the moment and that the editorial content seems far lighter and full of fluff than usual, but I rather thank that’s the summer slump in interesting and heavyweight material – we’ll check back on that again in the autumn.
So what is it about the site that isn’t working for me? Partly I think it’s because the redesign makes the BBC site look similar to so many others, such as CNN or Salon. It no longer looks distinctive or special, it’s just one of the herd.
This extends into the individual elements of the page – the right hand panels, the typography, the style of the footer – which all look familiar from other appearances: “you may also remember me from …”, like a web design Troy McClure. They’re all elements that within themselves have a great deal of style and panache, but brought together like this it feels more like a greatest hits rather than a coherent website.
Much has been made about the user testing done on the designs to get the BBC site to this point, and I can well believe it. I can see exactly where individual items have been steered and influenced by user experience best practice memes, almost as though I’m reading a text book on the subject. But I’m always distrustful of being completely reliant on usability tests and focus groups: you can so easily end up with something designed by committee that looks good in pieces but as a whole is so much less than the sum of these parts.
And that’s where I think the BBC News site is for me at the moment: it’s something of a Frankenstein’s monster of a design, where you can still see the individual joins and where the pieces don’t comfortably fit into an overall aesthetic. Scrolling down just the left hand side of the home page for example and the initial run of headlines in two-column measure is then broken into by an extremely domineering blue panel using a tabbed metaphor for UK and world regionalisation; and then as soon as you’ve absorbed this, you’re suddenly back to news headlines but now in a cramped four-column measure, while over on the right hand side the content’s run out and we suddenly have an awkward block of white space. And then finally we get into three different sections of footer content, all with their own different column measures, before the page is finally allowed to come to a rest.
Every part of the page seems to shout “Look at me, I’m most important, forget the rest!” and so it can feel a little like being visually mugged. I do find it most strange how loud and busy the site has become, how tabloid-brash: compare that against something like Facebook, which should be a lot less conservative than the BBC, but which is styled in a low-key, quiet way that makes it feel more like the Daily Telegraph than a hyperactive social network site that appeals even to teens.
It’s not just the home page – this design aesthetic continues into the news reports themselves, with the designers having fun with pull-out quotes and pictures into a central column of white space that’s suddenly appeared; sidebars are pulled in either overlapping into this column, or else the article itself. It’s the equivalent of pulling out all the stops and using every trick in the book, and if it’s not done with huge discipline or an overarching sense of direction, purpose and vision then it can just result in the page looking frantically busy, and frankly exhausting. It’s “shouty, shouty” style is the web-design equivalent to the “pointy pointy” use of 3D-for-the-sake-of-it in movies so loathed by film critic Mark Kermode.
There are few other tangible changes I dislike, such as the removal of links to the RSS feeds for the various sections (they’re still around, but at perversely illogical places – most of all, it’s the fact that the BBC seems to be signalling that it’s giving up on RSS promotion as a whole that irks me.) The switch to horizontal global navigation is also a problem as the sections headings simply don’t scan very well – and there’s too many rows of links in that header now.
Of course, any site is a work in progress: there will be changes, improvements and enhancements to the site as it beds in. Already, unless memory deceives, the layout of the “above the fold” part of the left hand part of the home page has been considerably improved, with more stories cleanly laid out which gets rid of the odd patches of non-design white space that the page initially seemed to have lying around. That’s made a huge difference.
Still, design is a very personal thing. While I and others might be struggling to adjust to the new style, others already love the new site. And certainly, sceptical as I am of the new design, I’ve already conceded that it makes the previous design look tired and dated, so the BBC is right to say there’s no going back. You can’t go home again once you’ve been to the bustling big city, even if the big city is loud and messy and dangerous, rather than paved with gold.
Most of the rest of the “issues” with this site design will doubtless be addressed as time goes on, especially if the BBC listens to its users (which it’s very good at doing, sometimes to a fault.) In the meantime, those of us who are finding the transition difficult should take heart that change, while difficult, is also a fascinating experience – and an endless source of material for opinionated bloggers!