As the world’s largest news website—and an InVision customer—BBC.com publishes international stories about everything from breaking news, to entertainment, politics, science, and sports. I talked to Ed Fairman, Interaction Designer at BBC.com, about collaboration, keeping audiences engaged, and the death of print media.
How’s the design team set up at BBC.com?
Our team’s small—less than 10 people—and to keep things focused and streamlined, there’s a dedicated designer assigned to each platform or feature on BBC.com. We tend to do a lot of conceptual work and design prior to the tasks before passing things on to the development team.
We have a nice assortment of graphic, web, digital, usability, and interaction designers within the company. So wherever needed, those individuals might be called upon to be involved in a certain project where their skills are most desired or required.
“The iteration of designs as they evolve is a necessary part of the workflow. We use InVision to realize our ideas.”
We keep teams agile and zealous to the platform or feature they’re working on, just because of the diverse nature of the content we present.
What’s the design culture like?
Very focused and collaborative. In the early stages of a project, we spread concepts and ideas on the table to encourage an open discussion and give team members rapid traction with the goals we’re trying to hit. It also helps them understand the scope of the project. Conversation is a powerful tool.
“In the early stages of a project, we spread concepts and ideas on the table to encourage an open discussion.”
What’s the biggest challenge of your team structure?
It’s great that we’re a small team—we have pockets of teams that work really well together. Since it’s easy to close off from the rest of team once you’ve been given a certain task or project that involves solitary work, we make sure we keep up the collaboration and stay involved by asking each other what we’re working on, especially if it’s relevant to your own work. That also builds a shared understanding across the teams in co-creation.
Tell me about your design process on new features, from idea to launch.
It depends on the project, but we usually start off outlining and defining our requirements through business goals or functionality improvements energized by user research and understanding. We brainstorm, research, and conceptualize in the early stages in order to come up with ideas and bring in new and unexplored discussion points.
We tweak and iterate designs accordingly before translating them to high-fidelity and passing them onto the development teams. It’s so important not to lose traction of your process—designers should always be in tune with development teams and be there to mentor and inform where necessary.
Before deployment, we also test thoroughly and listen and respond to user feedback.
Do you think the design process at BBC.com differs from other news organizations?
We’re led by a creative culture here—it’s one of our core values. We don’t just present news, but a breadth of amazing content spanning across lots of different themes.
“You never know—reading a particular article might influence your work that day.”
We’re autonomous within our teams, and having a role-specific designer involved benefits communication of ideas and strongly influences the design process.
How do you identify and prioritize feature requests?
They’re outlined by a set of goals, then scored by team discussions where we talk about how long things will take and what the requirements are. We prioritize what’s necessary and required for that sprint of work.
What’s a typical day on your team look like?
It always starts with good coffee and a few minutes of catching up on reading about inspiring designers, projects, or case studies on news boards. You never know—reading a particular article might influence your work that day.
Mid-morning, the team shares achievements from the previous day and talks about tasks for the next day. It’s beneficial to know what we’re all working on so that we can help each other if necessary. The collaborative culture at BBC.com enriches our approach to what we’re working on.
From there, the day’s normally a mix of focused design work (both exploratory and task-led), discussions with project leads, and cross-collaboration with other team members.
Are there any qualities in your design process that you consider unique or proprietary?
I adhere to some personal approaches that help with the fluidity of work:
- Gain, share, and discuss knowledge. Be as transparent as possible with your team. Be open to other people’s ideas and unify your own.
- Spark innovation by exploring methodologies and absorbing information from articles, books, blog posts and case studies.
- Understand and prioritize your users. Research, observe, learn, and evolve.
“Predominantly, we use InVision to showcase mockups, layout ideas and new functionality concepts.”
What do you think is the most powerful part of your design process?
Providing space for ideas, thoughts, and inspiration to materialize and grow—the ability to explore and conjure compelling ideas and influence that within your designs to create valuable and engaging experiences.
Unified principles are important as a general understanding within design, but it’s in our nature as designers to be explorers: we create and evolve ideas while retaining a certain quality.
What are some of the more important values that you try to see reflected in design changes?
Our audiences and users are at the heart of everything we do here. We’re always aiming to improve the quality and the general presentation of our content and the overall experience.
How do you make design decisions with such a massive and diverse global audience?
We’re continually coming up with ways to present our content. Since we have such a huge platform, it’s sometimes difficult to roll out large features, but creativity is the lifeblood of our organization. We’re always transparent with our ideas and thoughts to develop them and maintain memorable experiences.
What’s it like designing for media as opposed to another product type?
We’re different than an agency or startup in that our team’s very interlocked. I’ll sometimes jump out of my team to do another project elsewhere. It’s all about collaboration: we’re continually building, evolving, and improving the presentation of our content for our users.
“It’s all about collaboration: we’re continually building, evolving, and improving the presentation of our content for our users.”
Are there any best practices that you can share regarding signing for media?
We try to have a healthy balance of innovating and following certain procedures and principles.
What kind of metrics do you watch?
We focus, manage, and monitor user engagement levels—their time spent on pages and their depth of visit. With Earth, we’ve seen an increased dwell time on stories and more shareability across social platforms because of share tools on all the pages. We use various metric tools to shape, build, and evolve our designs and create a better experience.
“We’ve seen an increased dwell time on stories and more shareability across social platforms because of share tools on all the pages.”
How cross-functional is your organization and how do you work successfully with other departments?
It’s a mix of the culture and collaboration efforts of the teams. We all have different thoughts and opinions that we all respect, and out of that we can create some amazing things. It’s my job as a designer to turn those thoughts into something usable within the BBC platform.
How do you continue to innovate in media?
You could call it our design lab—we’re always challenging and envisioning new ideas, and we try to encompass all the new trends happening online while exploring our own features. We’re all passionate people working towards creating the best content and presenting it in the best way, and that’s what I really enjoy about working here.
It’s easy to get bogged down by principles, but I try to keep a clear mind while I’m designing.
How do you and your team stay engaged and creative while working on the same schedule and brand?
There’s a ton of interesting content to work with, so staying engaged isn’t hard. Everyone’s passionate about working here, and that resonates. It’s always nice to delve into different projects—that helps keep up a healthy design culture.
I often jump into smaller tasks like helping developers translate designs, improving a certain function, solving a usability issue, or even helping create some collateral for other team members.
What’s your user base like and how have you seen it change since you’ve started at BBC.com?
We have a very diverse, worldwide but loyal audience. We try to populate content that’s both relevant and interesting. Design and presentation is obviously a benefactor—we always retain consistency across our vertical platforms with the BBC.com brand, but we also like to innovate where possible. Design and ideas will always influence us.
How do you address the death of print media? Do you have any insights for people who are working on a similar problem?
We don’t have a legacy print business, but our design team has been instrumental in building the success of our native offering for advertisers. Having a very prominent past dealing with the print media, it’d be wrong to think print media is dying—it’s the only current media format that doesn’t require a constant connection, or even a charged battery, to engage with. Sometimes we forget that.
“It’d be wrong to think print media is dying—it’s the only current media format that doesn’t require a constant connection to engage with.”
More importantly, we can create bridged themes and stories that provide a progressively enhanced experience: from billboard to handset, from handset to tablet, from tablet to desktop.
If we provide more touch points for our audiences to engage with on BBC.com and our natively advertised products, we in turn provide a wider platform that delivers greater value to our users.
As for advice: learn from your colleagues. Encompass and unify your ideas with others and share your knowledge. Work together and build relationships with those you might not work with on a daily basis. You might learn something new and improve your insights.
With the rise of Twitter as a source of news, how do you appeal to younger generations?
We’re active on most social networks and believe it can be a really powerful tool to generate new audiences, not just to publish content.
With tech taking leaps and bounds and the increased demand for interfaces to be viewable on remote devices, we make it paramount that our sites can be accessed remotely. We test pretty rigorously to ensure we cover all these areas.
How do you get inspired?
News boards are my go-to platform for inspiration. Interesting articles are aggregated from across the web and provide an array of inspiring projects, stories, thoughts, resources, and case studies to aid in your methodology and processes.
Individual designer’s blogs are inspiring as well because you get a personal and emotive response from like-minded people in the design community. We’re such a passionate community, so this can spark friendly debates.
Observing how others communicate with interfaces and environments is another one. User engagement is all around us, whether it be digital, tangible, or in the real world. Being extra observant helps influence your perceptions, patterns, and ideologies.
How important has design been to the success of your product in winning significant market share in online media?
Very. We just redesigned the look and feel of Earth, our platform dedicated to nature and wildlife stories.
Initially, we had a steady number of visitors. But with the redesign, we had a staggering response in unique visitors within the first few months. We’re now rolling out updated designs across our other vertical series and hope to see a similar response.
What projects are coming up for your team?
We’re looking into ways we can best publish and present our content across our platforms, and design is obviously a huge part of this: innovating, exploring, and exercising new features and ideas. The more we learn from our users, the better understanding we have and more uniformed ideas for future improvements.
Do you have any insight for maybe younger designers who are working on reimagining industries or trying to shift really heavily engrained user behaviors?
Understand and retain business principles, but don’t conform it to a rule. Designers are innovators who create new and interesting ideas for the benefit of others. Environments and interfaces need to progressively enhance in order to keep audiences engaged.
Listen to your colleagues, learn from your users, and stay inspired.