Late last week, the BBC launched a new beta version of the web iPlayer, the on-demand TV service which has made a considerable impact since its launch in 2007.
Announcing the beta launch in a press release, the BBC stated that the new iPlayer has “a fresh new look and functionality to make it simpler, more personal and connected”.
So, what’s new? First up is a new interface, which separates TV and radio content and sets aside three ‘discovery areas’(TV Channels, Categories and an area at the top giving access to four panels) which provides easier access to programme content.
There’s new functionality too. Viewers can recommend content within their existing social networks on Facebook and Twitter, suggested programmes are recommended, based upon viewing and listening behaviour and there is more opportunity to personalise the iPlayer experience. The screen is also bigger and video is played in higher quality.
So how well has the new functionality been implemented and does the new interface improve the user experience?
The beta version has benefitted from dividing TV and radio content into two separate elements. The current version of the iPlayer has a vast array of panels and links, while the beta version looks simpler, less fussy and as a result, appears easier to navigate around and use.
The downside, of course, is that users have to notice the link to ‘Radio’ in order to access audio material.
The three ‘discovery areas’ in the beta iPlayer are clearly visible, allowing a faceted approach to locating programmes: by TV Channel, by Categories, and through four panels at the top of the page, ‘Featured’, ‘For You’, ‘Most Popular’ and ‘Friends’ as well as via a search tool in the top right hand corner.
These offer a greater range of ways to search for programmes of interest than is available on the current iPlayer and all without the need for a navigation bar at the top of the page.
Unlike with product recommendations on Amazon, It is not possible to remove programmes suggested to the viewer in the ‘For You’ area. Allowing for further user refinement of the suggestions made might help allow even more tailored content to be provided and so improve the usefulness of this tool.
Perhaps of most interest is the ‘Friends’ panel, in the top discovery area. This allows a viewer to link in to their Facebook and Twitter accounts and recommend programmes to their existing social networks and receive recommendations in return. It isn’t, however, clear if it is possible to recommend programmes to individual contacts, or whether it is only possible to share recommendations with the entire existing network.
Nor is it clear who a recommendation has come from. Clicking into the ‘Friends’ panel provides a link to find out how to ‘Share recommendations with friends’. On clicking this, the user is immediately taken to a sign-in / registration page, which is somewhat disconcerting given that at this point all they are expecting is information on what they should do, rather than being launched into the process.
In fact, the whole experience of creating a profile on the website is a little daunting. The ‘Register now’ link is not particularly visible, compared to the sign-in link but the greatest problem is that none of the benefits of registering on the BBC website are listed so there is no incentive to do so. A short list, in bullet-point format, of the key benefits of registering would probably result in more people doing so.
Even once a profile has been successfully created, the process of establishing the link into Facebook and Twitter networks is not straightforward. The user is required to provide details of their Facebook and Twitter accounts, in order to create the links.
Although this is a necessary step, it may act as a barrier to some users, particularly since linking to a Twitter account looks as though it will require the user to leave the iPlayer to do so.
Given the increased personalisation promised in the new version, it is a little surprising that the customisable functionality of the BBC homepage has not been replicated here.
It isn’t possible to re-position the discovery areas to match how the viewer wants to search for content, nor edit the channels and categories to show only those of interest. While it is possible to create a personalised list of categories, this is not particularly easy to do.
The viewer needs to click into one of the category types and then notice the link to ‘Add to My Categories’ which lies next to the title, and outside the main area of the screen to which the user is drawn.
A number of other features have also been implemented. It is possible to mark a programme as a favourite, which means that all other shows in the series will automatically be saved. Programmes saved as favourites can be sorted by those that are new, or those that are expiring.
Programmes that are showing now across the range of BBC channels can be accessed from the iPlayer homepage, within the TV Channels discovery area.
However, users are likely to be drawn to the list of programmes underneath the day of the week navigation bar, rather than the static ‘On Now’ image and so may miss this functionality.
Navigating within sections adopts an uncommon approach. While the dots and arrows employed makes it looks like a carousel system, by which content is scrolled through, using the navigation actually refreshes the page with entirely new material.
In summary, the look and functionality of the beta iPlayer is a significant improvement on the previous version. The tools should make it easier to find programmes of interest and there is a lot of interesting potential in the opportunity to link into existing social networks to both recommend and receive recommended programmes.
There are a few niggles of course, but that is why it can be good practice to launch in beta and get users to identify many of these on your behalf.