Ticker Data

 by Martin Belam, 1 June 2005

A couple of the prototypes that have already emerged via the backstage.bbc.co.uk initiative have involved the use of 'tickers' (Nigel Crawley's Ajax RSS News Reader and mini-newsreaders at BBC 'Aorta') - and have made me think about some of the disadvantages of delivering information in a ticker format.

Don't get me wrong, I think both of these are great prototypes, and I have to hold my hand up as a 'ticker' creator myself. Whilst I worked on search at the BBC I was asked to make a real-time display of what people were typing into the BBC's search engine. A combo of perl, javascript and HTML, it wasn't the most elegant technical solution ever to see the light of day, but I was very pleased with it, not least because two weeks previously I couldn't have written a "Hello, World!" script in perl, let alone glue something like that together end-to-end.

At one stage I had great plans for it, and made a prototype that would segment the search queries into the areas of the site from which they originated, and produce a revolving display for the windows on the side of Bush House showcasing not just the breadth of searches made by our users, but the breadth of content areas that bbc.co.uk contained. In the end, the fact that I couldn't 100% guarantee that something unsavoury wouldn't appear on the side of the building put paid to that idea.

There are some places where tickers are used where I really don't see them as the best means of delivering information.

The TfL site delivers the latest travel disruption information in a ticker at the top of their homepage. It is a really inefficient delivery mechanism, and means you cannot get an at-a-glance view of how London's transport network is performing, as you can only see one incident at a time. Not only that, but you have to remember the first item you saw and let the whole series of messages rotate around until you recognise it again in order to be sure that you haven't missed the part of the travel news that was relevant to you.

Likewise the BBC News site has a latest headline ticker at the top of the homepage. It runs slower than the speed at which I can read off the screen, and several times a day I find myself second-guessing what the end of the headline is going to be. I could almost be playing the Have I Got News For You missing words game (as niftily prototyped for backstage.bbc.co.uk by Nick Crossland at www.missingwords.co.uk)

But what is the fascination in delivering information in a ticker format?

I understand that putting movement on the page attracts the eye - after all, that was the justification for the existence of the evil <BLINK> tag - but surely delivering information in a ticker format limits the user to taking in information at the speed you deliver it, rather than at the speed they are comfortable they can absorb it.

Personally, I think it must be that in the UK we have all subliminally absorbed the collective race memory of the Saturday afternoon teleprinter on BBC One's Grandstand, and believe that information being delivered in a ticker-style is hottest off the press - even on the web.


Hmm, why is the last paragraph flashing?

Oh, that's not funny enough - because I had pulled that from Bloglines I actually inserted a BLINK tag into the code. The shame of it. The shame of it.

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