BBC on Cross-Media Design

On May 30, 2005 by Christy

The latest iTV newsletter: Tracey Swedlow’s Interactive TV Today has an interview with Andy Wilson, Head of BBC Intertactive TV Training, part of the BBC New Media Courses. The course discussed, Interactive TV, is described on their website:

This course gives an overview of the digital multi-channel environment, the platforms and technologies being used and the range of interactive programmes and services currently available. The day will be a mix of discussion, viewing and creative exercises.

The interview gave me some insights into how the BBC is approaching cross-media design. They give participants an overview of the different types of platforms available, ‘the technology, the number of users–the quirks of the various systems’. They discuss the various strengths and weaknesses of each platform. Then they discuss the various categories of iTV:

For example, we explain the BBC’s definitions of 24/7 and enhanced TV, and we give them examples of each–for example, a multistream service and a play-along quiz.

It should be noted that just about every company or producer is coming up with its own terms to describe different types of cross-media content. Xenophile Media, for instance, have introduced the term ‘Extendable Reality’ to describe the linking between serial television drama and Alternate Reality Gaming. It is understandable that companies would do this — I do this too — since we’re trying to differentiate between types or to explain the concept in the name. I don’t know how audiences fair though. How many know what interactive TV is and isn’t? The next stage of the course covers ‘remote controls’:

The delegates, as a group, decide upon how a navigational structure should work, how people entering a service should move around that service: what buttons they should press to perform certain functions. This is a cross-platform exercise.

But then we give them a range of remote controls for different platforms, and they have to work out which keys do what. The exercise is about understanding how the functionality of the remote is linked through to actions on the screen. This introduces the design principles for cross-platform environments, specifically when you’re talking about remotes, as you’re going to have to write different instructions for each platform, since they have different keys. If you’re going to select something on one platform, you might have to press the button that says “select.” On another platform, you might have to press the button that says “OK.” And on a third one, you might have to press a button that hasn’t even got a name. This part of the course helps the delegates to understand that they need to think about all the boxes and remote controls that are available to viewers at home, as the piece of equipment that they might have at home will be different to their neighbors’, and the numbers and flavors of set-top boxes and remotes are growing everyday.

This is good. The intricacies of material navigation is essential knowledge to have. But what about the step before the actualisation of navigation: preparing the user to act? What about making the navigation diegetic (part of the storyworld)? How interaction is plausible in the storyworld? I also think that planning the points-of-entry for the audience (which medium or mode and when) and the various paths they can take is an essential part of effective cross-media design. I guess at this stage alot of this is intuitive for the designers, or not considered at all. Either way, these considerations need to be publicised.

They then give an overview of the different programs one uses in the design of these works (eg: Photoshop). I went to a talk about Game Design for Education recently and one of the speakers said that most of the game design work is in Excel. I think that shocked some of the keen young gamers in the room!

The next stage is building ‘service maps’:

[W]e do a brainstorm about enhancing a service, and explain how we build
service maps.

[itvt]: What are service maps?

Wilson: They’re a bit like a navigation map for a Web site. At the BBC we build service maps in order to understand how a service will work. We give the delegates some regular, linear television programs, we give them outlines of the programs and let them watch a short example of them, and ask them to come up with enhancements to those programs, based around various constraints. This session really helps to “concrete in” the topics that have been covered during the day. That would usually be the last exercise of the day.

I guess this approach is a good step for those practitioners coming from a mono-media perspective, but it perpetuates the idea that other platforms augment. Augmenting, or elaborating, is one of many cross-platform relations. It is the most basic, after remediation or content.

And here is the summary:

We teach people to design cross-platform and to learn to understand the constraints of the systems they’re designing for–to think about how they can design
something that can work across multiple types of middleware. It’s about thinking intelligently but creatively across as many platforms as you’re going to be operating on, rather than concentrating on a specific platform. Obviously, we give attendees a lot of detailed information about specific platforms–on what their respective palettes are and on what types of graphics work best on them. But, ultimately, we try to focus on getting them to think about designing the best service for a television brand, and not to get bogged down in just learning about a particular platform.

Interesting and helpful approach by BBC to teaching iTV. But this, like every workshop, seminar and conference I’ve studied remotely or attended is grossly wanting. The details of cross-media design just aren’t really being discussed. It is difficult to impart knowledge about an area that requires a paradigm shift in a short period of time, but more could be offered. Why isn’t it? Is it because people don’t know? [Most of them don’t!] Is it because they don’t want to share their treasured knowledge? [I’d be surprised if so.] Is it because the people training are not necessarily the best practitioners? [Possible.] Is it because the best practitioners are not necessarily the best teachers? [Possible.] Is it because the people sent to give talks are not the people who really made the decisions? [Sometimes.] Is it because no one person contains all the knowledge about how cross-media projects work? [Yes.]

P.S. I’ve just finished the orientation of a multi-platform ‘jam’ with industry professionals. Rather than give talks about methods, this approach is to facilitate a think-tank competition. I’ll give a report soon on this.

Swedlow, T. (2005) [itvt] Issue 6.04 – Feature: Murdoch, Miliband Launch Volunteering App, Interview: BBC ITV Training-Andy Wilson, 27th May, 2005.