Design on demand

The BBC’s iPlayer iPad app has been launched as a video-on-demand service in 11 countries. Head of design Duncan Swain explains the concept to Patrick Burgoyne

Thanks to a new iPad app from BBC Worldwide, viewers in 11 countries outside the UK can now watch a selection of the corporation’s programmes on demand. Head of  user experience and design at, Duncan Swain, led the design of the global app. Swain explains that, for work of this kind, the BBC finds outside partners rather than developing the project internally. He started looking for someone to work on the product in September 2010. “At that time this was a platform that was only six or seven months old,” Swain says.  “I spoke to various people I know to see who, in the mobile space, would be good to help us with the app. We chose Pinch Zoom from Seattle because they had been doing a lot of Apple IOS work for iPhone and global mobile work, so we thought they might give us a head start.” Also key to the project’s success was getting Apple involved very early on to approve design work.

Swain says that user testing was key to the process. One thing that came out very early on was that overseas viewers were more familiar with certain shows than with BBC channels, so no channel branding is used. “We had to think about how we drive programme discovery,” Swain says. “The audience might know big titles like Top Gear but how do you drive them to other shows?” Users choose a ‘genre’ from the top menu, ‘Comedy’ say, and a range of programmes appears, each with a short explanatory text. Again, user testing was important here: an early version with a menu item for Blackadder displayed just the show’s title and an image of its stars in period dress: viewers thought it was a costume drama. All menus use the same images and text to cut production time.

Choose a particular show and the next level of the menu displays details of each programme in the series. Visually and from the UE perspective, Swain says, “The key words we kept coming back to were ‘radical simplicity’. The app sits in the background, it’s the content that has to communicate with people. Compared to other VOD services we use much bigger thumbnails: we’re trying to give as much context as we can through the immediate impact of pictures.This is a lot of space to give to text and titling but it’s giving people a lot of context around programmes as quickly as possible.” As well as browsing genres, shows can be browsed alphabetically or users can search by cast member. A key feature of the app is that shows are downloadable for viewing later.

Once a show is selected for viewing, users are presented with options for similar programmes that they may like in an attempt to introduce less well-known content. “People’s lack of familiarity with the content was one of the main things we learned from user testing,” Swain says. “We tend to assume people are familiar with what the BBC does and they’re not.” Much of  the testing was done by Creative Good in New York.  “It’s one-on-one, we sit behind a one-way mirror watching users sit with a consultant and use the services,” Swain explains. “It’s so powerful because, in a subjective area like design, it gives you real data. It’s especially important internally: it can be a real epiphany for stakeholders to watch people struggle with stuff [they had wanted to include].”

The show viewing screen is the last of just four levels of content: “People are prepared to learn and play more than you might give them credit for,” Swain says, “but they also get incredibly frustrated if things don’t work in the way they expect them to. In an early version, we experimented with quite fiddly sub-genres, but people hated having multiple layers of menus. They like big buckets of stuff to get into quickly and scroll through to whatever catches their eye.” Swain says they also overcomplicated the options they gave viewers initially. “All people need is a place to store stuff so they can download it to watch later.” Here, the BBC’s relationship with Apple helped as it was able to over-ride the iPad hibernation function so shows could download overnight..

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