Hi, I'm Ben Hazell. I used to blog here about the media, but now I work there I don't write here anymore.
I'm the Web Publishing Editor at - I find better ways to tell stories, developing tools, training and practice for journalists.

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The Blog

Rarely updated now, used during Journalism MA at the University of Sheffield.

BBC Homepage review

Sunday, 6 January 2008
Before Christmas I promised a brief review of the new BBC homepage beta, and now I deliver.

Review in a word: Overweight.

The BBC homepage is the page you find at, and it'll be the main entranceway to over 2 million pages of content on one of the biggest websites on the planet. You can take a look at the trial version of the new homepage here.

I'm going to be focusing mainly on the design and role of the page rather than the content. As far as I can tell little has been added, and I'm assuming that what we're seeing during the beta test is just a new layout for the old content. New content may follow when the design is finalised.

On the whole I like the new look. The header is fresh, it's clean and the varied colours are all good. The fonts are crisp, and the weightings are well chosen. Text is perfectly spaced. It feels slick and modern, almost a demonstration of what they can achieve. It's hugely important for organisations like the BBC to appear cutting edge, and this brings them into the present era of rounded shapes and shaded colours. The search bar has been strongly highlighted, and for a site as large as the BBC, searching is always going to be vastly more efficient than hunting for links. The directory at the bottom and the footer are similarly neat and well designed. Packed with links, but well spaced and helpfully organised. So far so good.

It's the middle that annoys me.

The new homepage is designed to be fully and intuitively customisable. Where before the homepage tried to include a link to nearly every area of the BBC site, you can now select which areas of interest you'd like to be displayed. You can then move these information boxes around and alter the level of detail displayed. The customisation options work well. Movement is a simple drag and drop method, identical to Facebook, and the customisation options are relatively easy to use. You just indicate what you want to see and put it where you want it.

Well, almost where you want it. The one box you can't move is the biggest - the cross-promotional advert box. Ooooh, advert is a strong word, but it is, even if it's 'cross promotional', and it's every bit as irritating as adverts on any other site. Admittedly it's now showing a large image of Keira Knightly which isn't so bad, but not all the rotating adverts are as pretty and some are rather crude stock images. In my view, if you're going to have giant images dominating a page you should ensure that they're always great. I hope they make a real effort here.

I understand the need for cross-promotion. The BBC isn't trying to sell us anything but inform us about developments we've already paid for. However, this giant box on the new site is invasive and overshadows the rest of the page. I'd really prefer to see it scaled back a little.

The International version of the page doesn't show the big advert, replacing it with an additional expanded but mostly empty 'Top News' box. I'm aware that with the launch of there will be commercial advertising on the BBC site visible only to international viewers, but I'm pretty sure that this space won't be turned over to adverts for international users. This means that the first piece of customisation I did was to switch by view across to the international version. I then immediately wondered why I wasn't just looking at BBC News.

When I first saw the new homepage I briefly wondered if it might replace BBC News as my homepage. It won't. In fact, like the existing homepage, I can't really see any reason why I'd ever go there. The homepage is a portal to the BBC, and a very shiny, modern, welcoming one. But it's not especially useful. The BBC site is so rich in information that each box barely does the area justice. If I have any interest in the History section or the Weather, I'll probably go straight there, or end up there from a search engine. Customisation then feels like a novelty because I doubt I'll be going back there often enough for it to be worthwhile.

A homepage should offer to take you to new places on the site. This one lets you limit your view to only those places you already know. And chances are you'll soon be going straight to those places, bypassing the homepage. By customising your view the first time you visit, you may remove a lot of the options. You can bring them back easily, but they'll never be there at a glance, to visit on a whim. By making some things so big, and potentially hiding so much, it doesn't allow users to explore as easily as the old site.

The new customisable homepage lets choices become restrictions, and surely that's a crime on the internet. I understand that the old site could overwhelm with choices; it was cluttered and I agree it needed to be tidied up. I understand that it looked dated; it was bland and I agree it needed a lick of gradient fill. But did it need all this? Is it wise to let users cut away anything that doesn't immediately interest them? I feel I'm being led around on the new homepage, not allowed to explore.

A homepage is essentially a giant menu. This menu needed a tidy. They've opted to let us remove choices in order to tidy up. I'd rather they'd gone with a system of expanding sub-menus, keeping everything tidy but available.

My next concern is that the whole site is too wide. It used to be a convention not to build sites wider than 800 pixels. If you did they went off the side of the page for users with older computers, forcing users to scroll sideways. The whole of the BBC site is currently restricted to this limit.

At around 960 pixels wide the new BBC homepage is well within the size of most modern PC monitors. However, PC's are no longer the only devices going online. Powerful mobiles, ultra-mobile and educational laptops and specialist tablet browsers are all growing in popularity and many of these struggle with sites wider than 800 pixels. Just at the time we can be sure that PCs will all cope with wider web designs, a wave of new devices have arrived designed for the existing internet, and may not be able to cope with wider sites. When dealing with small screens, a horizontal scroll-bar only further reduces the screen space. It's a shame they've expanded sideways and I don't think it adds anything to the page. I really hope this isn't a template for an expansion of the whole BBC site. The Beeb is hardly the first to burst out of the 800 width barrier; the Guardian, Times and Telegraph homepages already have, but they at least ensure it's the adverts that get shunted off-screen, and the stories remain at 800. By using columns the newspaper websites ensure that you only loose whole blocks off the side of small screens. The BBC homepage lets content fall half off the page and is thus a constant irritation on a small screen.

I'm mainly moaning about this because the site looks rubbish on my tiny new eeePC.

I might be more forgiving if they'd used the space a little better. As already mentioned, I like the header and footer. But the customisable boxes seem desperately wasteful. We see giant fonts with large blocks of empty space around them, and then more wasted space around the boxes. It's all very chunky, like it's been built for a fat fingered child.

If the new BBC homepage was a person it'd be David Cameron: Slick but unoriginal, slightly chubby, wants to be everyone’s friend. Not quite sure what it's for. Soon to be the public face of the UK.

Now a question to the readers: What's your homepage and why?


Foolish Speech said...

Gripping, insightful stuff. Thank you.

Ben said...

Thanks Kate.
Which, of all the many sentances you read, gripped as I'm sure you were, which would you say was the most... insightful?

Foolish Speech said...

I particularly enjoyed your comparing the BBC to FaceBook in a beneficial light. I'm sure they'll appreciate that.

I also enjoy the fact that the BBC is encountering the same problem as Sheffield University - how on earth do we find good stock images for the homepage?

Interestingly, both sites have also been built to the wrong dimensions for most monitors.

Ben said...

Hey, they made the comparison themselves in the design notes. Anyway, Facebook is a brilliantly built website, hence it's sucess.

I can't remember if I made the link to the Sheffield site in the post but I meant to. I've already seen some bad cut-outs on the BBC page, and lumps of flat colour. We know where that's going... Greek Flags in Paint!

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