The BBC has an enviable reputation for quality journalism, and this extended for many years into its news website.
However, in its current state the BBC site has fallen into a state of mediocrity has also befallen sites such as CNN and the Globe and Mail. I single out the BBC because it used to be, in my opinion, simply the best source for international online news. Its journalism is still good, but site-usability has fallen dramatically. It seems that the BBC has aspired to be more like other less usable websites, like CNN, rather than continuing to lead the way in terms of usability.
I have two main complaints:
Category-clutter on the home page: For years, at the top of the BBC home page one could read a limited selection of capsule news items, nicely categorized, These had informative headlines followed by a sentence that filled in useful detail. One followed links to other thematic pages if one wanted other types of news.
Now, one has to parse a mish-mash of at least nine types of stories to find material of interest: 1) The 'Latest' constantly changing bar at the top, 2) The main story and its sub-stories; 3) Several second-level stories, some of which have substories, 3) A list of short headings without any capsule text; 4) A series of 'also in the news' headings; 5) A series of articles under 'World News' or 'UK News' tabs; 6) Series of articles under theme headings such as 'Business', 'Technology'; 7) A series of 'Special Reports', 8) A series of 'Features and Analysis' items on the right; 9) The 'Most Popular' list. All of this also has to compete for attention with ads and other non-news links.
I would issue a challenge to news websites to dramatically simplify the number of types of articles: Perhaps it could all boil down to: a) Top stories with substories; b) Short lists of articles under theme headings; and c) The most popular list.
Some people might ask why I am complaining. Surely, they would say, why cannot I use an RSS reader like Google Reader or NetNewsWire if I want to avoid a messy home page? I would be able to, were it not for my second complaint:
Unidentified auto-play video in RSS feeds: This has become the bane of RSS reading. The BBC and other sites present headlines of most-recently-updated articles to which RSS readers subscribe. The trouble is, the RSS headlines do not indicate which items contain video, and which simply show text when selected. Worse yet, the BBC has unwisely followed the lead of other sites and has made their videos 'auto-play', meaning the video starts instantly (with a commercial these days).
The way many people use an RSS reader is to select a series of headlines and have them open in separate browser tabs ready for later reading. The trouble is, one now gets two or three videos all starting at once (playing the same commercial incidentally). This can cause embarrassment if one has left one's volume up in a public place, and can cause sudden unexpected network slowdown. In effect, it has rendered the use of RSS feeds, like that of the BBC, increasingly unusable.
Two changes are imperative:
First, video on websites should absolutely never be auto-play. There should always be a 'play' button to start it, so when a user arrives there via a any kind of link they can choose to adjust their volume and whether or not to consume bandwidth.
Second, all RSS feed items that lead to multimedia should say so: A tag 'Video' or 'Audio' should appear prominently in RSS headline.
I will have more to say on ways to improve RSS publishing and readers in later blog posts.