Drawing Fire: How transparency in User Centred Design brings out the worst in our users.

There are certain roles in digital user-experience design that are coveted. Coveted for the opportunity they present to have your work seen and interacted with by a huge number of people, coveted because they represent Britain at its best, most accessible and world leading.

Jobs like the Government Digital Service and the British Broadcasting Corporation.

The new BBC.co.uk homepage across three screen sizes.

In that context, I’m a keen reader of the blogs both these organisations put out that explain and add authenticity to their work; the rigour and integrity of which is inspirational. [GDS & BBC]

Imagine then, having spent weeks and months developing user-centred solutions, using all the best thinking you can bear to the project. Deploying some of the brightest UX, Information Architecture and interaction design minds, commissioning (extensive) user testing and getting the buy-in and agreement of savvy and critical stakeholders. Imagine the end result being pushed to the expected audience and, in the spirit of transparency, sharing that journey online.

And then you read this response:

So another blog by another name showing all the hard work that has gone on the background, trying to justify the latest reason for the ‘responsive’ redesign. Just like the news app, just like the news page, you may have spent weeks shuffling you coloured bits of paper round on the wall and getting each other so excited that the toilets have never seen such use before, but the fact remains, you work has been pointless. The home page is crap, the news site is still crap and the news app still remains so crap, that those of us who still have access to version 2 now refuse to update.

And what will we see as a response to comments in this blog? Dismissal of those telling you that you have got the change wrong and continued insistence that this is the way forward. At least it’s something you can proudly tell you grandchildren in years to come, “I used to work for a Great British institution called the BBC and was involved in its downfall.”

Granted there is just a group of detractors and critics who are so full of hatred for a ‘biased’ BBC that one will never convince them, but even so, does this not make your heart sink? Sink at the ignorance, the stupidity at a group of people that cannot see how a truly incredible digital public service is designed entirely around the users. The undermining of the craft of the people that work on sites like this is deplorable. Patronisingly assuming that it’s just a self-congratulatory exercise involving coloured paper makes my blood boil.

When I read Hugh Gummett‘s original post I read about competitor analysis, stakeholder reviews, detailed requirements capture and interrogation of data. I can see there was more than cursory user testing, namely:

32 in-depth qualitative sessions and collecting quantitative feedback from around 400 people through surveys. Those recruited to provide feedback covered a wide range of demographics, had varied interests around areas such as news, sport, entertainment, lifestyle and learning..

Furthermore, the testing included a BETA site (opt-in) and multivariant testing of the implementations for the homepage. To give the team credit one really has to acknowledge that this was not a design done in a sealed room and foisted on a gullible public. But they can’t even win there, other commenters assert that 400 users aren’t sufficient as the BBC has 8 million users – not understanding how representative sampling works at all. Design a site for each one of those 8 million users? How does that work then? Sigh.

Perhaps I shouldn’t have looked at the comments, perhaps the UX team doesn’t either, nothing good ever comes from comment threads after all but my goodness me, as a way to demotivate this afternoon’s reading takes some beating.

Of course, if your head is as far above the parapet as it is at the BBC this kind of attack is inevitable. In our industry, we do have to stay strong and continue to work with confidence that we’re going about user-centred design in the right way. I take comfort from the fact that as practitioners we have raised the bar and are getting some many things right now that it takes a bit of pedantry and comment flaming to stir us and increase our resolve to ensure each implementation gets better and better for those that care about what we do.

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2 thoughts on “Drawing Fire: How transparency in User Centred Design brings out the worst in our users.

  1. Sean Bentley says:

    I just took a look at the homepage. MASSIVE photo about China. Massive, I tell you! Then “Is crossing your legs bad for you” is at the same level on the page. Huh, why on earth should that be a priority story? And I have to scroll and scroll and scroll and scroll to see virtually anything else. Whatever happened to “at-a-glance” info?

    Also why does every story have to have a glossy photo? It looks like a page full of ads.

    • John Gibbard says:

      I can’t see the version of the page you’re seeing (i.e. a US version) so not really able to comment on the specifics Sean. The version we see in the UK on handheld devices has less scroll and isn’t so intense on imagery.

      As for looking like ads, some context here. The BBC is famously ad-free in the uk, few if any users here would perceive imagery as advertising, although it might be internal content promotions. My point is that that the team responsible for this work simply wouldn’t push out design that was universally contentious or unloved. That doesn’t give them a mandate to behave with impunity as omniscient experts but I simply don’t believe it’s a catastrophic design in the manner that web commenters would have us believe.

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