News, sport, weather, TV & radio - sensible BBC global navigation at last
The BBC has been beta testing a new homepage design - and I couldn't help but notice something rather special about it. It appears that, finally, the BBC has accepted that the top-level navigation for the site should be news, sport, weather, TV and radio.
In fact, as evidenced by the new Doctor Who site, it appears that this sensible navigation is being rolled out across BBC Online.
I say finally, because during the time that I worked at the BBC in the early 2000s, the site went through a series of global navigation iterations that seemed to be in denial of the simple facts that these are the categories of content that people most associate with the BBC.
When the BBC first launched an online presence, navigation was minimal.
By the late 90s, the BBC had around 22 top level categories that were listed on the left-hand navigation of the BBC Online homepage. All strictly in alphabetical order...except news, sport and weather which headed the list.
And category growth got worse after that, with a homepage containing around 80 links of text heavy navigation.
The trouble with using 'news, sport, weather, TV and radio' as five primary navigation labels had always been that they were also the names of four of the most powerful departments - or petals as the structure was at the time - within the corporation.
And if you were simply listing the names of departments, then at that time you needed to add Learning, Nations & Regions, Factual & Learning and Drama & Entertainment into the list amongst other things. Which clearly made it into an 'org chart', not a navigation scheme at all.
The solution, when a global toolbar was introduced with the BBCi brand in 2001, was to diplomatically avoid the names of any individual department wherever possible, omitting news and sport in particular, and instead having links things representing 'local' or 'interactivity'.
The problem with these vague compromise links like was that they had to go to a destination. The BBC website ended up with pages that were significant in the information architecture, being listed in the global navigation on nearly every page, but which were not actually significant for the organisation to maintain.
The first set of 'global' toolbar links were "Categories | TV | Radio | Communicate | Where I live | Index".
By 2005, this had changed to "Home | TV | Radio | Talk | Where I Live | A-Z Index"
During the mid-2000s, the team writing the promo slots for the bbc.co.uk homepage, seen by millions, were also having to maintain the promotional slots on a range of miscellaneous pages seen by mere hundreds. And any information architect would have been astonished to see a global navigation that included 'categories' and an 'index'.
Another problem that the BBC faced back then was that the 'global' navigational toolbar was not truly 'global'. There were variations on the toolbar if you were on international facing services, like the World Service website, or if you were in the 'Schools' section. The logic here was that schools would be happier using BBC web content in lessons providing the navigation bar was stripped of easy routes to get to non-educational content on the site. To be honest, if you were using the BBC's revision websites, and couldn't fathom out how to type 'Eastenders' into Google for your fix of soap-opera-shaped distraction, no amount of revising was likely to help you.
As an organisation it is a risky path to walk down, and this applies to any large scale internet or intranet site, not just the BBC. As soon as you allow one part of a site to 'opt out' of a sitewide standard, because there is something 'special' or 'unique' about their content, audience or purpose, it becomes increasingly harder to argue against other areas of the site also exercising an opt-out.
By the launch of the international facing BBC homepage in 2005, not only were the links different, but the visual appearance of the 'global' toolbar was different if you were viewing the site from outside of the UK, or were viewing a page aimed at those outside the UK.
This all added up to a big confusing navigational mess, and no amount of user testing could convince the organisation to pick the obvious links as the main navigation. In recent years the site has had an "Explore the BBC" button, which opens an overlay to reveal around 20 navigation links, which are somewhat contextual to the area of the site you are in.
All until this year, it seems.
Maybe it is the fact that the most powerful areas of the BBC are now called things like 'Vision' rather than 'TV' and 'Journalism' rather than 'News' that has freed these loaded terms up to be used as the main navigation on the site, but I welcome it.
Finally, it seems, you'll be able to navigate BBC Online by a structure that makes sense to the audience, not navigate by the internal politics of the BBC.