EuroIA: Beyond The Polar Bear

by September 25, 2011

In his Beyond The Polar Bear presentation at EuroIA in Prague, Michael Atherton explained how domain models have changed the way BBC designs its content-rich Web sites. Here’s my notes from his talk:

  • Information isn’t neat. Taxonomical organization is limited to organizing things as “similar”. When thinking about how a subject breaks down we usually find the right boxes to put things in. But information doesn’t really fit hierarchically that neatly. So compromises get made.
  • It’s been very difficult to organize all of BBC’s information. Most of its websites are in small, silo-ed teams as standalone or micro-sites.
  • The process of designing sites at the BBC focused on pretty PSD mockups. User experience has put considerable emphasis on front-end presentations. Projects work with static prototypes tested against user stories and personas not real users.
  • Semantic Web structures can be used to build bridges across disciplines and develop a more long-lasting framework. Not really thinking about documents and structure, instead thinking about things in the real world when organizing.
  • Long before the BBC ever thinks about Web pages (now), they consider domain modeling: an ontological organization system vs. a taxonomical one. Start with a logical understanding of subject being covered vs. Photoshop mocks. Domain-driven design seamlessly integrates with everything else. Has become the way of building sites at the BBC.
  • Talk to experts and users: domain experts need not be technical. Users may have a simpler view of what’s important. Find a model of language that works for both.
  • A shared model, language, and understanding enables a consistent user experience. Everyone should be able to draw the domain model.
  • Once an effective domain model is in place, generating Web pages is mostly straightforward. One URL per object allows people to share and provides a single point of reference for editors and search engines.
  • This domain model driven approach generates lots of single pages — takes cue from Wikipedia's model and allows for easy sharing.
  • URL design is an overlooked part of user experience design. URLs should be hackable, usable, and human readable. Above all though, they need to be persistent. Your Web address is a contract/promise with users.
  • Microsites can be stitched into the fabric of a domain model and feature-enhance content instead of being a separate entity.
  • Adjustments to BBC Food page doubled the search engine traffic (was 650k, now 1.3m) to pages by consolidating traffic to focused canonical pages. Most traffic comes from smartphones. Up 20% from last October.
  • So which is the real BBC home page? The desktop site that gets the most design time? The mobile experience, which is getting more attention? Or the Google search results home page where people start their journey?
  • Domain models provide many opportunities for user journeys that teach people facts/relationships as they move through them.
  • A layer of curation of top of your data structure adds context and trust through editorial voice. This needs to be done without compromising the underlying domain model structure.
  • True user experience design runs deep: consider business logic, SEO, document design, and URI design.
  • Think of the Web as a single shared space. People use it as a whole. Design your content to be sharable: easy to point at, find, and share. Use data published by others, publish your own.
  • Don’t start with wireframes, start with a domain model. Put 70% of your effort into your thing pages not your home page. Start with your least capable experience (mobile and google bot) to maximize reach and reach.
  • Design in the browser using real content. Keep your prototypes in front of real users.
  • The Web has changed: it’s still about content, but access has shifted from silos to aggregators, the whole Web is our canvas.
  • Design for a world where Google is your homepage, Wikipedia is your CMS, and robots are your users.
  • The new information architect thinks about real-world things; considers user experience from the ground-up; designs for mobile first; wrestles data from the ground up. IAs need to wrangle the branches of information.