5 quick usability wins for the BBC iPlayer beta trial installation process
Having spent two of the last three weeks sitting very near to the iPlayer development team in the BBC's Future Media and Technology department in White City, I'm aware that there is no shortage of people telling them what they ought to have done with the product. And that is both outside and inside the BBC.
From the Open Source Consortium's 'rip it up and use video codec DIRAC instead' vote, to Guardian journalists patiently explaining to commentators on their blogs the concept of the BBC existing within a regulated market economy, it seems everybody has something to say about the product.
So, why should I be any different?
Here is my first tuppence - 5 quick wins that could really improve the usability of the installation process. It is a crucial area of the service to get right before the doors to the iPlayer are open wide to the public later this year.
1: Send a confirmation email when people register
At the moment, when you register to take part in the open beta test, you submit your details, and then wait. The BBC sends nothing back to you to confirm that it is processing your application.
The next thing you hear is when a username and password combination drops into your inbox.
I think it would be much friendlier to users if the BBC emailed them straightaway, saying that their login details will follow in due course.
Although this process will disappear when the beta test becomes fully open, users will still have to register within the iPlayer site itself as users of the service on bbc.co.uk
At this point, they also have to agree to the terms and conditions of the service.
It would be nice if that action could also trigger an email to the user, thanking them for joining the iPlayer, sending them a copy of the T&Cs, giving them instructions on how to get it installed, and links through to the help and FAQ sections of the site.
2: Only require the user to log on to the server once
This problem will also disappear when the iPlayer goes fully public, but until then it is a very frustrating experience for users to have to login to the iPlayer beta test with the authorisation credentials sent to them by the BBC, and to then have to login with those details again as the process moves from the www.bbc.co.uk domain to the downloads.bbc.co.uk.
I understand the infrastructure reasons that the BBC hosts large downloadable files on the downloads.bbc.co.uk sub-domain, but really either the authentication should be made persistent, or, during the course of the trial, the iPlayer .exe download should be served from the www.bbc.co.uk domain.
3: Give clearer system requirements information
One common problem during iPlayer installation, and one that I myself encountered, is that the user's browser informs them that they do not have the right system components to run the iPlayer, but also displays a green tick against every component.
This gives the user no idea of what to do next to get the thing running.
On the assumption that the BBC doesn't have re-writing the whole installation wrapper on the 'to do' list before the full public launch, this problem should at least be mitigated with some extra contextual information at this step in the process.
The BBC could add a simple piece of text explaining that if you can't proceed despite all of the ticks being present, you may need to upgrade one or more of the components, and link through to some help or FAQ information suggesting the user update their versions of Windows Media Player and Internet Explorer. This would help prevent this step of the install becoming a cul-de-sac for novice users.
4: Check for an existing instance of iPlayer running
This maybe doesn't fall into quite the same category of 'quick' win as the rest, but the installation wrapper doesn't seem to be terribly intelligent about detecting whether an instance of iPlayer is already running on a machine or not.
I ended up having to go through downloading and 'installing' the iPlayer 3 times before the website seemed satisfied that I had the thing on my machine - yet all that time I could see that it was happily already running and using up my CPU cycles thanks to the logo appearing in the taskbar.
5: Rename the Kontiki ActiveX component
I'm sure there have been innumerable discussions around the legal side of this - but for users who know little about how the BBC iPlayer works, the way it tries to install the ActiveX components required looks very odd.
With Internet Explorer's security settings at medium or above, it quite rightly warns the user that the webpage is trying to install an ActiveX component. However, the warning makes no mention of the BBC whatsoever.
"This website wants to run the following add-on: 'Kontiki User Interface Binary' from 'Kontiki, Inc'. If you trust the website and the add-on and want to allow it to run, click here..."
This message will be much friendlier to the inexperienced computer user if it doesn't appear to come from a completely separate third party.
Instead it could provide a message like install 'Kontiki User Interface Binary for the BBC iPlayer' if the Kontiki name has to be mentioned, or simply 'BBC iPlayer ActiveX controls' if the mention of Kontiki is not entirely and contractually necessary.
Of course, the beta is a first pass at running the system by the nearly-general public, and is bound to have some flaws, but with over 100,000 people using it now the BBC has an excellent testing user base 'in the wild' to help iron out the kinks before the iPlayer is fully marketed later this year.