Audience Reaction To The BBC's Doctor Who Themed Homepage

Martin Belam  by Martin Belam, 20 June 2005

One thing I was looking forward to at work this morning was getting hold of the audience reaction to Saturday's special Doctor Who themed homepage.

Doctor Who special on the homepage of bbc.co.uk

One of the first emails I got when I arrived in the office was simply entitled 'Oh Dear'. It turned out not to be about the technical problems we had experienced with the page on Saturday, but about the sheer volume of feedback we had received - the number of emails was in an astonishing four figures.

We'd also tried to use the bbc.co.uk area of the Points Of View message board to generate discussion about the page - but that didn't work nearly so well. The initial response to the query was a complaint that the message boards weren't working properly, and we only generated two responses in total.

The message boards at Doctor Who fan site Outpost Gallifrey were much more active though, and naturally more complimentary:

"Looks the dogs bollocks, doesn't it?"

"That's bloomin marvellous......a big 'yaay' for bbc.co.uk"

"Isnt that just amazing. I accidently went onto their site [it was the homepage on the computer I was borrowing], and I was blown away. Its completely eyecatching and ever so stylish. Way to go BBC web peoples. :-)"

"I almost choked on my coffee this morning when that came up! Way to go BBC!"

"Is there a precedent for this? I can't think of a single time that the Beeb has given over half of its homepage to promoting a specific thing - not football events, royal occasions or other shows...
This is a gob-smackingly, jaw-droppingly wonderful way to begin the day!"

There lies a problem with interpreting the data - we need to account for the fact that some people commented because they loved the page because they loved Doctor Who, and some people commented because they hated the page because it was Doctor Who ('childish populist nonsense' according to one email - I'll hold my hand up, I'm guilty of being happy that it has been childish populist nonsense). The only evidence we can get from this though is that it is a reminder that we constantly risk alienating large sections of our audience with our current one-size-fits-all promotional approach.

So back to the 1,000+ emails. I've been dipping into the mailbag to get a feel for it, and rarely have I seen such polarised opinion. Some themes really stand out though.

Firstly some people can be very quick and to the point. For nearly every email we received that simply said "crap", "shit", "awful", "rubbish" or "horrible" we seemed to get one that said "brilliant", "awesome" or "loved it".

One thing that came through very clearly was that there was a strong group who really loathed the change, and didn't feel at all shy about letting us go. There's something about the medium of email to an anonymous address that really allows people to let rip. "Amateurish" and "Unprofessional" were adjectives that cropped up again and again. It also looks like we would have collectively failed the website components of the national curriculum when they are introduced, the design being described as like the output of a primary school end-of-term project, or a five year old let loose with FrontPage.

There were also a proportion of the mails asking why change at all - one suggesting we'd had 'one too many meetings'. Another email also tied the change in with the recent changes to the weather, suggesting the brown of the weather maps and the brown and tan of the new homepage were some sort of attempt by the BBC to suck the vitality out of Britain. (Although apparently I am too busy forcing the UK to go metric and pushing the BBC's anti-blog agenda to take on another social engineering mission)

It was also an informative exercise in how if you ask for feedback on the changes you've made, you also generate comment on things that haven't changed. There were quite a few comments about the fact that the homepage is fixed width at around the 800px mark and leaves a lot of spare space on the right-hand side, or that the HTML is still a bit tag-soupy when we could go to a tableless pure CSS approach.

I have to say that we have a rigid template and page framework across the whole of bbc.co.uk, and I don't think I'd ever want to sanction that the homepage should set the example of ignoring it completely - however we will at some point have to face the fact that a sizeable proportion of our audience are using monitors at a higher resolution than 800x600. Likewise, although some of our talented HTML crew have produced a pure CSS version of the page, which I'd love to launch (the bandwidth savings alone would put a smile on my face), we would struggle to provide a 'comparable' user experience to the legacy browser versions we still support.

The feedback also helped us confirm some of the user behaviour we know to happen - we broke some people's regular journeys, as they could no longer hop straight to the BBC7 site, or the Cricket homepage for example via the front-door. There was also a strong sense that some people resented a shift from 'information' to 'advertising', with people complaining not so much about the choice of the Dalek, but that 3/4 of the screen was taken up with promotional material to the detriment of the content.

That all sounds very negative so far, but there was lot of positive feedback as well - the first exit polls suggest a roughly 50/50 split. The design was described as "much cleaner than the normal one", "a change for the better", "a lot clearer and easy to read and navigate", "much better, modern looking and easy to use", "Sleek, elegant and ideal for the 21st century", and appropriately enough with Eccleston's 9th Doctor catchphrase - "Fantastic"

Two themes have come out that I'm sure will be feeding into the future development of the page.

One is that it didn't necessarily work for our international visitors - whether they were ex-pat Brits writing to complain that it was harder to get to their radio streams and they were the only things that the BBC offered them now, to non-Brits astonished that what was on the telly in the UK that evening could be "more important than the news". The way that we serve our international audience has been put very high on my agenda at the moment - it seems to me that whatever solution we arrive at, the status quo is not going to be a long-term option.

There was also a very valid point made by several users that we provided a means to opt to switch to the regular homepage, but this switch had no persistence. Having opted for the non-Dalek version of the BBC, every time they opened a new browser window they found they had the sink-plunger thrust in their faces again. My gut feeling on that now is that not using cookies to hide the special page from users who had requested the regular one was an oversight.

The emails were still trickling in today - the form for feedback is still available at http://www.bbc.co.uk/feedback/doctorwho_comment.shtml if you have an opinion and haven't yet mailed us - and they illustrate a real problem the BBC has when we canvass for specific feedback on an issue.

Maybe we should have managed expectation more on the feedback page that this was a temporary change to promote a specific event. The mailbox on Sunday and Monday has featured people who are saying thanks for reverting to the old design, I mailed you on Saturday to say how much I hated it and I'm glad you've changed it back. Equally we are also getting mail that says I preferred the new design, I can't believe you have changed it back so quickly because some fuddy-duddies might have complained about change.

I think the thing that pleases me most about the whole exercise is that very often in the BBC we will do a lot of user testing up front on services or systems, but unless we are about to embark on a major re-design we don't always re-visit our user's experience enough. With this special homepage, and another couple of events we have coming up, we have an opportunity to test out changes with our genuine users, and gather both qualitative data through feedback, and quantative data by looking at usage patterns. It can only give us a better understanding of what our audience wants and expects, and hopefully allow us to provide not just new products but ongoing services in a user-centric designed way.

Although sadly I'll have to let the last depressing word rest with one correspondent, who expressed dismay at the fact that the BBC doesn't really give a toss what comments people make unless they coincide with what the BBC already thinks...

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8 Comments

Did you read my e-mail? :-)

What kind of tedious dullard looks at a web page, and when they're asked for a comment thinks... "Oh, I must look at the source code. Ugh! the HTML is tag-soupy when they could go to a tableless pure CSS approach."?

Frankie, I didn't notice your email, I've read about a third of them over the last two days, but to be honest I wasn't looking at the FROM: field - although I have noticed your contributions on the POV board the last few days ;-)

Ian - in your book that might be "tedious dullard", but to be honest a critique of our production methods is a lot more actionable than "Bloody awful", "It sucks" or "I hate darlecks".

'actionable' -> that's an adjective of a verb of a noun. I love it (genuinely). :-)

Oh sweet cheeses, I've even started spouting management guff in the comments on my own site without thinking. I think I've gone native...

Sorry to say the first doctor who on the 16th of April WAS RUBBISH

i love doctor who i wish it was back form sharon murphy

Well that was surreal.

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