My five minute talk on analogy at UX Bristol

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At the end of the excellent UX Bristol back in July, a few of us gave 5 minute talks. These talks are now available to watch online.

I talked about how – when I was running the intranet at the BBC back in 2005 – I was inspired by the transformation programme at London’s South Bank Centre. I found it a useful analogy for the work we were doing to transform our digital workspace.

Useful to a point, I find analogies can become most interesting at the points where they break.

This is a short version of the longer talk I gave at London IA back in November 2010, which Martin Belam blogged about. See also Matthew Solle’s post Conversations Over Coffee for some more background and a little bit of ranting.

Enterprising times – a case for search best bets

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Reading the e-Consultancy interview with Lou Rosenfeld on the importance of site search analytics, I was reminded of when I was product manager of intranet (or enterprise) search at the BBC.

It was back in 2002. People complained that search was broken, but we had neither quantitative nor qualitative data to analyse.

After consulting with my colleague Martin Belam, who at the time was looking after search on, I put in place a system for capturing search engine usage data.

In a nutshell, this included where people came from, what they searched for, and where they went.

We also conducted user research to gather qualitative data about the experience of using the intranet and what it was like to find things on it.

After only a few weeks, the usage data started to settle and patterns began to emerge.

We noticed that search term frequency had a long tail (though we didn’t know that’s what it was called at the time!).

The top 25 search terms accounted for half of all searches. The top 50 terms accounted for 75% of all searches made.

We tried searching for the top 10 terms, including “training”, “expenses”, “ariel” (the BBC in-house weekly newspaper) and “jobs”.

The results were worrying to say the least. Few of them returned the result expected on the first page of search results.

If we could find the most likely link (or links) for each of our top search terms, and return that as the top result, we should be able to guarantee providing most people with what they’re looking for.

So we set about building what became the Best Bets system. (How we did this I will write about another time, but needless to say it involved an SQL database, some asp code and some hacking in to the Microsoft Site Server system.)

We then set about working with the numerous intranet site managers to determine what the best link should be for each of the top 50 search terms. Further usage analysis, research and testing showed that this working. Success! People were clicking on the Best Bets result almost 95% of the time we had a search term match.

Over time we extended to cover the top 100 search terms, then 200.

Regular usage analysis showed us when new terms appeared and we took editorial decisions on whether they should have a Best Bet.

In spite of the success of the Best Bets system, we certainly couldn’t rest on our laurels. This was an improvement for sure, but as we well knew, it was only a part of the overall search and navigation user experience. There was plenty more work to be done!

Any search engine worth its salt these days comes with best bets functionality as standard. My advice is to take the time to study and understand how people are using your search engine. Test the top search terms yourself to see what the results look like.

Maintaining a best bets system is a relatively low cost exercise, and encourages regular monitoring of search usage and behaviour, which in turn will provide excellent information about your users’ expectations and your intranet’s findability performance.

A word of caution from experience: bear in mind that the formatting of the best bet in the search results page should be minimally different from the natural results, otherwise it risks ending up in the user’s blind spot and be regarded as a “Sponsored Link” rather than something genuinely useful.

The new look BBC homepage and Gestalt

Reading time: 2 minutes

Generally I like the new look BBC homepage which officially went live last week after a couple of months in “beta”.

It’s got most of what I want: news, weather, listings – the iplayer link could be more visible.

Redesigns are rarely straightforward to get right. I’ve overseen a few in my time. You’re damned if you do and you’re damned if you don’t – as they say.

It looks like the feedback from people who’ve commented on the BBC’s internet blog has been mainly positive.

One recurring theme in the feedback, however, and the one thing I would like to see changed, is the use of colour change when different “tabs” are selected.

It goes against human nature and breaks the Gestalt principle of grouping objects by similarity.

Below are four thumbnail images from today’s BBC homepage to illustrate. Click on the thumbnail to see the full size image.

Torchwood game British-Asian music
BBC Food Using this page

When I click on a coloured tab, key elements around the page change colour, using the tab colour as their base.

Sub-consciously I infer a relationship between everything which switches to the new colour-scheme, when in fact there is no relationship.

Blog Readability Test

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I’ve just been having a bit of fun with this… The Blog Readability Test. What level of education is required to understand your blog? – as seen on David Cushman’s site.

Apparently you require a “high school” education to read this blog.

I haven’t dug around to see what, if any, algorithm is being used to calculate readability.

Rather worryingly when I put in it came back saying you needed to have a college postgrad education to read it, and to be able to read you need to be a Genius. Something fishy going on there methinks.

One to watch, as it were… BBC Internet Blog

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[…] I think we have been slow to embrace blogs as a way of discussing our strategy and direction. This often leads to the debate happening elsewhere, based often on only half the information, and without our being able fully to join in the debate. We’ve not done ourselves any favours, and we want to use this blog to re-engage with our friends and critics.

Ashley Highfield

Ergo… the BBC Internet Blog

Welcome to the BBC Internet blog, a sister blog to the existing Editors’ blogs for News and Sport. A place where we, senior staff from BBC Future Media teams will talk about issues raised by you about the technology behind, our mobile services and the BBC’s presence on the internet.

The links on this blog and its stream are chosen by Alan Connor and Nick Reynolds.

Good luck to Nick et al.


Reading time: 1 minute

Blogging is changing and challenging journalism. It changed and challenged mine even though I was doing the blogging. It is a way to focus the collective intelligence of the audience onto the facts and arguments. Moblogging from a single device that can do words, pictures, audio and video gives us a taste of the future: when the device can produce broadcast quality video the only limitation will be bandwidth. Everybody will have their own TV station. I can hear that line from The Incredibles – “when everyone is special nobody will be”. But it does not necessarily follow, since blogging, like Google, is a way of voting for excellence and even, frighteningly, voting for truth.

Paul Mason rounds off his Newsnig8t blog with some fascinating thoughts on blogging, journalism and what’s happening to broadcasting.