Back in 2007 - an eternity in web years - the BBC published a document showing their 15 Web Principles.
I thought I'd take a look at how they stack up today. And investigate whether the BBC is still living up to them.
Here are the slides if you want to play along at home:
1. Build Web Products that meet user needs
This is still good advice! Sadly, there are still too many services around the web which are built on business needs. People grudgingly sign up for accounts to basic services which don't really need it - all because a business wants to see a number go up.
I find my needs being increasingly unmet by the BBC - other than them continuing to produce Doctor Who. I suspect I'm not their demographic target. But, more importantly, I see lots of digital products (like Sounds) which seem to go against the grain of user needs and instead focus on what the BBC wants.
2. The very best websites do one thing really well
An extension of the UNIX tools philosophy.
I have mixed feelings about this. I don't think there's anything inherently wrong with a site which does multiple things. It's just rare for any site to do two things well. For example, both Twitter and Facebook could have created something like TikTok - and it would fit in relatively well with their existing site. But the business culture of most organisations just doesn't allow any deviation from a central mission.
Does it make sense to have a website which does both cake recipes and Estonian literary criticism? If you can do both, great! But that's a rare skill.
Does the BBC still embodies this principle? I think it depends on how you define a website. They have multiple sites doing multiple things.
3. Link to other high quality sites
The BBC's news pages still don't do this regularly. When reporting on a publication, it is rare that they ever link to primary sources. There's a real reluctance in most organisations to let people leave the site.
But it is still a relevant principle! The web is a series of links. It only works because people can trace backwards through your sources.
4. Fail Forward, Fast
A bit of early-2000s culture there! For new services, it still makes sense. For larger and more established services, it isn't OK to "move fast and break things".
But the principle of trying new things and being prepared to admit that they've failed is wonderful. It's humbling and informative. I don't see much evidence of this in the BBC. I'm not a regular user of their services - but there have been a few big launches recently which seem to have failed - but haven't yet been put out of their misery.
Failure is only a problem if you don't learn from it.
5. Treat the entire web as your creative canvas
This is a bit of a weird one. I think they're trying to say that users exist outside of your site. You need to have a presence on other sites - and then use them in the appropriate way.
For example, the BBC has multiple Twitter accounts. They exist independent of the main BBC web site.
This is mostly good advice. If you have the resources, you should be playing around with other sites and maximising your presence there. You've got to meet people where they are.
6. The web is a conversation, join in
I despise the faux friendly tone of voice adopted by most organisations. Nevertheless, you can't ignore what people are saying about you. You don't have to take the advice of your critics, but you probably ought to show that you've heard them.
The BBC is usually good at joining in with conversations - but like all large institutions, it has a pathological fear of expressing contrition.
7. Any website is only as good as its worst page
Oooh! A spicy take! 100% accurate. We've all seen a shiny front page, and then an absolute shitshow of a subsequent page. Think of all those airline websites which make it so easy to book a flight and then horrific to cancel your booking.
People do remember negative experiences. If you've ever run a moderately popular site, you'll know that people lovel complaining about how awful it is based on an obscure and unloved section.
8. Make sure all your content can be linked to. Forever.
You would have thought, after flushing the early Doctor Who recordings down the memory hole, the BBC would have learned from this mistake. Apparently not.
Timbl was writing about this problem in 1998!
I get that the BBC might have licencing agreements that make keeping some stuff online impossible. And old webservers need to be continually fed, watered, and patched to stop them from becoming a liability. But too many of the Beeb's early sites and links are dead.
This is still good advice. Keep your content up as long as you can. You never know when someone will stumble across it.
9. Remember your granny won't ever use Second Life
Ooof! A bit of casual sexism and ageism there. But probably accurate in that no one is using Second Life.
The underlying point - late adopters have different needs from early adopters - is helpful. The words we use, the tropes we employ, and the interfaces we design all need to be accessible for new users.
I wonder how well the new BBC sites work for that demographic?
10. Maximise routes to content
Again, still good advice. I suppose we'd call this an "omnichannel strategy" today. Get your links out on social networks, videos, TV screens, and anywhere your audience are.
But, the BBC kinda breaks this. So many of their routes in are "download this app" or "search for us on". That obscures the direct link to specific content.
People don't live on one site. Well, OK, maybe Facebook! You have to accept that they won't all come through your front door. Make it easy to go from outside your site straight to a specific part of it.
11. Consistent design and navigation needn't mean one-size-fits-all
I think we all know the power of consistent branding, and it is reassuring to users if they understand how to get back to the start of a page. I agree that navigation needs to adapt depending on the size of the device.
Judging from the few BBC sites I visit, this isn't a priority for them any more. Each site seems desperate to push its own brand identity - which is a business need, not a user need.
12. Accessibility is not an optional extra
Tattoo that inside people's eyelids! Excellent advice.
13. Let people paste your content on the walls of their virtual homes
Things like OEmbed make this pretty easy nowadays. There will always be sites which want to jealously guard their own content, but it's still good advice.
The BBC seems reasonable at doing this. Of course, copyright often gets in the way.
14. Link to discussions on the web, don't host them
The BBC seems to flit back and forth on this. Some of their sites embrace comments, others don't.
I have mixed feelings. I don't think sites should "own" the user and try to force them to comment in one officially sanctioned place. And moderation is a complex and costly business. It probably makes sense to let people know how to join in with a conversation on social media ("Hashtag Strictly!").
But the downside is that you're exposing your users to unmoderated and unfiltered content. Is that best for you? Is it harmful to them?
15. Personalisation should be unobtrusive, elegant and transparent
Ha! The BBC have reversed this in the last few years. Almost every one of their sites and apps begs you to sign in with an account. And, judging from the account they forced me to get on iPlayer, the personalisation is crude and obvious.
Do users want personalisation? That's hard to answer. Every power-user swears they want complete control and hates algorithmic choice. But for more casual users, it is a great way to find interesting content.
The real problem is that the algorithms are usually designed to promote profitable content. That is, content the business wants users to see - not what users would choose.
There's a fair bit of early-web-2.0 idealism in these 15 principles. In truth, I'm hard pressed to disagree with any of them. Throughout the web - not just on the BBC - they are often observed mostly in the breach.
I wonder if the BBC is culturally capable of producing something like this in 2022? And, more importantly, enforcing it on its own sites?
What will the next 15 years bring?
12 thoughts on “The BBC's 15 Web Principles - 15 years later”
Darren Waters says:
Impressive but not surprising to see how well these stand up. Disheartening but not surprising to see how few of these are followed by others. Naming no names....
🍷 🍹 🍺 🍸 says:
@Edent 100% with you on the BBC accounts. I can barely get more than a few pages in without this woman popping up to disrupt my reading
Tom Scott says:
@Edent that brings back some memories! Re #5 there was a brief period when we really leant into that one and thought about (bits of) the web as our CMS — embedding Wikipedia, musicbrainz content (and more) in bbc.co.uk and encouraged people to edit on those sites if they could make it better. All gone now.
Matthew Morgan says:
I find it is not just the BBC who underlink to their sources, almost all websites are guilty of this. I personally will link to any external sources that I use.
I suspect the lack of linking in geneal is driven by fear of being down-ranked by Google if the AI thinks the website they are linking to is "low-quality".
simon gray says:
@Edent Oh, I’d complete forgotten @tomski was at BBC FM&T — I wonder if he interviewed me on one of the many job interviews I had there‽ Regarding ‘8. Make sure all your content can be linked to. Forever’, if I’m not mistaken the #DoctorWho Discontinuity Guide is no longer there, which is moderately irritating to me…
The BBC's approach to Sounds is a mix of what seems like pathetic desperation and/or contempt for users. It looks not so much "Build Web Products that meet user needs" as "build a product and when not enough people use it, force them to". They don't even hide it much. They have more than one webpage on which they literally state "We want more people to use BBC Sounds" as reason for messing with MP3 downloads of popular topical shows
This is nearly four years after Sounds was launched, so it had had plenty of time to acquire users by way of being something people want to use. Notice how they haven't simply discontinued the MP3 downloads, so they're not saving themselves any work, if anything they've created work by having to implement delaying release by 28 days. They did make an attempt to sell the change as an exciting new development which benefits you, the user, with drivel such as "This gives licence fee payers even more value", and enthusiastic spiel in the MP3s prior to the change trying to sell it as a good thing that soon you will be able to listen to the show first in BBC Sounds, even though it is a change which makes things worse for lots of users and makes things better for exactly zero users. After forcing people to use Sounds, they're publishing self congratulatory articles about how more people than ever are using it https://www.bbc.com/mediacentre/2022/record-4-53-million-use-bbc-sounds-during-week-following-mini-budget
The BBC Radio app had an alarm function which I used and worked just fine for years. The BBC Sounds app does not have a Radio function because apparently alarm functions are difficult https://www.bbc.co.uk/sounds/help/questions/features/alarm-clock Shortly after the BBC actively broke the Radio app to force people to use Sounds instead, I found the TuneIn app has an alarm function. Shortly after I started using TuneIn to wake up to BBC radio the BBC stopped making their streams available on TuneIn, I guess because they want people to use Sounds.
James Cridland says:
I loved this work. It was so good, and so… public service. What a shame that almost all of it has disappeared.
James Cridland says:
This is a lovely piece, and I’ve high regard for Tom. However, as someone who spent a short time at the BBC, important to highlight that, sadly, these weren’t the BBC’s web principles; just Tom’s. Many people, even in senior management, actively fought against every bit of them.I agree with almost all of them, though; and shake my head every time I get a pop-up on the BBC News website telling me to fucking log in.
Sindarina, Edge Case Detective says:
@emma Every now and then, I miss the Second Life that could have been 😄
Aleks Jakulin says:
As we think about the role of media, it's worthwhile going 15 years back, to the time before the rise of polarization, anger, social mobs and such. We need to evaluate any changes against those ideals: shkspr.mobi/blog/2022/11/t…
@Edent It's so refreshing to see the vision of the internet before the rise of BigTech. Yet, one of Tom's principles, "#10: Maximise routes to content" was the trap set by BigTech, and "#6: The web is a conversation. Join in" locked BBC and others into a passivist mindset: without actively protecting the infosphere.
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