Inspiring Curiosity

The BBC’s new iWonder platform offers an immersive online learning experience for tablet, mobile and desktop users. We spoke to Andy Pipes and Chris Sizemore of BBC Knowledge and Learning about creating a responsive, engaging and cost-effective resource for a new kind of storytelling

As a broadcaster funded by public money, the BBC is under constant pressure to innovate. Its mission is to inform, educate and inspire; its vision, to be the most creative organisation in the world; its core values, to provide quality and value for money.

In decades past, the broadcaster pioneered new types of content and technologies, introducing UK households to daily radio broadcasts, colour TV, weathermen and ‘fly on the wall documentaries’. Today, the BBC’s creative efforts are focused on its online content as much as its TV and radio shows, and through its four screen strategy it has promised to deliver a range of media that works seamlessly on any device.

This strategy is a key concern for all BBC departments, including Knowledge and Learning, which provides resources for teachers and pupils. The department has spent more than a year developing iWonder: a platform that combines editorial, video and audio content with archive footage to create immersive educational guides.

The first guides were released in January to coincide with the start of a season of programming commemorating the centenary of the start of the first world war, and offered a look at wartime poetry, censorship of the press, plastic surgery developments and the viral success of the marching song, Pack Up Your Troubles. The BBC plans to release 100 World War One guides this year, as well as more covering art, science, religion, food and history.

As we explained in a blog post in January, each iWonder guide uses the same responsive system and layout: a web page, divided into a handful of key points which answer a central question through a variety of media. Each features commentary from a different presenter – the initial line-up included historian Dan Snow, composer Gareth Malone and journalist Kate Adie.

The Beeb’s educational offering is already diverse – its Bitesize revision guides cater to students from primary through to GCSE age and it provides resources for adults and teachers, too – but iWonder is not just a study aid. It was inspired by immersive editorial such as the New York Times’ beautifully crafted Snowfall site, and combines BBC programming with video commentary, journalism and data visualisation.

The sleek user interface and linear layout make iWonder guides intuitive and easy to navigate. The time it takes to create each guide varies depending on the content, but each uses the same framework. Text, images, audio and video can be uploaded by editorial teams in a matter of minutes using a CMS like that used by BBC online news staff.

As with most creative projects, making such a seemingly simple site was a complex operation. Production teams in London, Glasgow and Cardiff spent months crafting a responsive system that can be easily adapted to produce guides for any subject – unlike Snowfall, which took a team of coders, designers and video journalists six months (and a great deal of money) to produce. “We wanted our new format to have all the qualities of this class of highly immersive story – but tailored for every device – whilst being straightforward for editorial teams to reproduce quickly and repeatedly,” says Andy Pipes, executive product manager at BBC Knowledge and Learning.

To make sure pages load quickly on any device, Pipes says the team have developed a system “that loads just the essential components of the page at the right times. Mobile-sized images download first, then when the page’s Javascript detects the browser’s capabilities, higher res images get ‘loaded in dynamically’,” he says.

iWonder content is decided through meetings between editorial teams, planners and presenters, but while they tie in with current programming, Pipes says the guides will not simply repeat themes raised in TV and radio series.

“We want to take unanswered questions from shows and explore them in depth. There’s no point in just repeating ideas, and the iWonder format is not about providing programme support but new, bespoke, topical content,” he says.

Chris Sizemore, executive editor at BBC Knowledge and Learning, says it’s also important that guides are authored pieces – in most cases, the scripts and texts for iWonder guides have been co-authored by presenters. “In the past, the BBC’s factual content has had an encyclopaedic tone but the guides are from a particular person’s perspective – we thought audiences might be drawn to that and enjoy seeing a list of well known faces,” he adds.

As with any new BBC offering, the iwonder platform was subject to thorough audience testing. The broadcaster undertook market research to define a core audience of licence-fee payers that might be interested in online learning, then tested the look of the site in focus groups every two to three weeks. “Of course, the breadth of the BBC’s audience means we can’t appeal to every licence fee payer’s taste, but we try to develop offerings that will reach a broad range of users,” says Sizemore.

While it adheres to BBC brand guidelines and reflects key Knowledge and Learning values such as ‘enlightened’ and ‘brilliantly curious’, iWonder has its own distinct visual identity with a more light hearted feel than other BBC brands – but is not designed to appear “frivolous”, says Pipes.

The iWonder font, Curious Sans, is a variation on the BBC brand font Gill Sans, and the desire to inspire curiosity is also reflected in the iWonder logo, in which an ‘o’ doubles as a question mark. The tone and overall look of guides will vary depending on the content – a piece about space exploration will have a very different feel to one on war, for example – and designers have developed a choice of eight to ten colour palettes. Each guide will use the same layout, icons and headers, however, and every section of that guide will be represented by a different shade of the same colour, moving from dark to light to represent a journey “from question to enlightenment,” say Pipes and Sizemore.

Pipes and Sizemore say they’d eventually like to introduce even more interactive elements to iWonder guides and increase user engagement. For now, the site is both a valuable learning aid and a great marketing tool, and Pipes says he hopes it will encourage a greater focus on innovative, multi-platform offerings from the BBC – as well as provide an opportunity to create resources with partner organisations such as national museums.

“It’s great to see our TV colleagues at the BBC just as excited about this platform as we are – we’re potentially on to a very interesting online storytelling tool here, and it may lead to a pan genre approach – a future where you’ll see different parts of the BBC estate collaborating and linking with each other,” says Sizemore.

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