Getting personal with BBC Connected Studio
Earlier this week, a small team from KentLyons took part in the BBC’s Connected Studio’s Build workshop. You can read about the project here, but essentially it was a hack day (or in this case, two days), focussed on creating innovative ideas about personalisation on the BBC homepage. We presented an idea earlier this month, and were called back to explore the idea further. Prototyping, discussing, looking at possible flaws and roadblocks in the idea, and eventually pitching the working prototype in 5 minutes (5 minutes!) at the end of day 2.
We’d come pre-prepared – a bit, anyway. Some of the tech for our idea was already developed, and we’d started thinking about the visual aspects of it, and how the conversation between the user and the website might go. But the real challenge, and the challenge in getting any user to personalise their content is one of persuasion. How much work will people be bothered to do, and for what gain? What is in it for them? Get that wrong, and personalisation is doomed, as numerous sites have found out to their cost.
Sites like Facebook are strictly about personalisation – without you, they are nothing. Their trick is to convince users that without them, you are nothing. Literally no-one is not on Facebook any more (if you’re not, it’s a badge of pride and deliberate awkwardness, akin to being a vegetarian 25 years ago), and everyone’s experience of it is personalised. The same, but unique. And that is core to the experience, so it feels OK to fathom out the personalisation and privacy settings. You don’t mind adding fairly personal details about yourself, in the assumption this will enhance your experience – the more you put in, the more you get out. Of course, that’s not actually true – you can get by on Facebook with a bare minimum of details – you’re able to make friends, get event invites, message, see what songs your friends are listening to, play Farmville, and other vital Facebook activities with just a picture and a name. But what are the barriers to entry and what are the benefits?
A closed shop
To engage with Facebook, you have to sign up. Facebook.com when you’re on the outside is completely closed. This high wall prevents people from peeking in, and creates a mystique. If you want to know what actually goes on behind the closed doors, you have to give something of yourself to do so. This is possibly one of the main reasons Facebook has so many users – no-one gets to try before they buy.
The log in process
It’s a pretty straightforward process, but not without effort. It’s more involved than setting up a Hotmail email account, but less involved than setting up your internet banking.
Once in, you can start making real, human connections. It’s a huge pull, being able to initially find your friends, ex-colleagues, people you’ve lost touch with, and immediately you can find out about their lives – what they’re doing, where they’re working, what they’re interested in, how they’re feeling. It’s information, but with huge emotional connection, and is the reason why the so many people use the site so often. It serves the primal, visceral need for gossip, which is evident in all human communities.
The personalisation proposition for the BBC is very different – at least online. What benefits can bbc.co.uk offer users from personalisation? And how easily can users personalise their experience?
A better filter
The BBC puts online at least 5000 new pieces of information or entertainment online every day. It would be impossible to access all of it. And pointless too. There’s no point in reading all of the sports articles put out on BBC.co.uk/sport if you’re not interested in sport. And listening to all of Radio 3’s programming would make for a long, tiring day for the average 13 year old Radio 1 listener. But the volume of output is distracting – it’s easy to miss something that is really interesting to you, just because it’s lost in the current of a wide, fast flowing river of content. If the site knew what you were interested in, it could put content up you might like. This amounts to a feeling of better service, smarter interaction, but not necessarily a huge discernible benefit – you could find the things that interest you, and without a huge amount of effort. So what would users be prepared to do to to get a personalised result?
Clearly, to encourage engagement with personalisation, the barriers need to be really low. It needs to feel natural, simple, non-threatening. It also needs to feel careful – the BBC is a trusted brand, but it’s also expected to have incredibly high standards. When the BBC makes a mistake, it is seldom excused, and always spotted – which is appropriate for a publicly owned broadcaster. It also means that the BBC is held to standards other companies are not.
Simple, easy tools
The best tools don’t feel like tools. They just work. For a content provider like the BBC, where the key draw for users is the content, any tool that helps users get to the content they want needs to be as simple as possible – it mustn’t behave as a piece of content itself. And yet, that is where the BBC’s homepage is currently. They have a massive, slightly frightening carousel, jammed with content, which is mostly used as a toy. Users spin it round, but rarely interact with the content. This isn’t easily surfacing lots of content – it’s distracting from all the content. Users are playing with the toys, and ignoring the content in the toys.
Instead, it would be better if the tools were content-shaped – you interact with content that shows you what else is on offer. Also, if you show less, but can tailor the content to specific users, or at specific times of the day, you have a much higher chance users will be able to interact with the content, and not just the toys.
6 years ago, we were invited to help Channel 4 develop their digital brand strategy, with specific focus on the homepage. Our strategy, which is one they have adopted for the last six years is: Say one thing, with confidence. Every day, Channel 4 serves one piece of content they believe you need to watch. For a user, this makes life incredibly easy. Of course, its a tough job, to edit down from 5000 bits of content, but with personalsation, you can edit well enough for most users.
The idea we ended up pitching was essentially about frictionless personalisation – a process of automating personalisation so the user had to do as little as possible. It’s a simple tool, well used by Amazon and iTunes, but hopefully will work across the various different BBC digital touch points. We’ll find out over the next couple of weeks whether our idea has enough reach to be piloted – but even if it hasn’t, the process has led us to uncover some core truths about personalising an experience.
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