BBC iPlayer redesign – user experience review

The new version of iPlayer launched a month ago. I imagine it was a nervous time for the people involved over at the Beeb. Going about changing something so well-loved would I suppose be a bit like considering another actor to play Alfie Moon. I am an infrequent user of the service, relying mainly on my PVR but last week the inevitable happened and I managed to miss my all time favourite programme Mad Men. I suppose this must be one of, if not the most common user goals that the iPlayer designers have in mind when approaching their designs – allowing users to easily find an episode of something they have missed. It’s testament to the designers that I found my programme easily and can’t actually remember the steps I took to do so.  However that was one person and one scenario.

Test Set Up

In order to better understand how successful the redesign has been we tested it with 6 other users and more scenarios (using We selected a range of ages to recognise the BBC’s reach, several of those being over 50.

The tasks were firstly to find a favourite programme of the user’s choice and in order to delve a bit deeper “a recent documentary about Scientology” which wouldn’t be so obvious to find. We also included tasks relating to the new features for this release: sharing recommendations and favourites.

Searching for a programme

There is absolutely no substitute for seeing real users in action on a website. I have yet to experience a usability test that did not throw up something new. On this occasion, the first finding to take me by surprise was the way in which people went about initiating their favourite programme search. Three out of the six users entered the programme name in the main search box on the home page without first navigating to iPlayer. The results page has two sections – on the left programme and content links and on the right results from iPlayer. Users who went down this route tended to focus on the left hand list and therefore missed several possibly good matches from the iPlayer links on the right.

These two examples show users entering their search and their reactions to the standard search results page.

Search Results

The iPlayer redesign has deliberately given the same priority to radio content as for TV. However the two types of iPlayer links are not distinct from one another which could cause problems. Several of our users were not confident that they were going the right way to find their programme when seeing radio programme titles in their results. In my view there should be more clear visual indication of the result type in or around the link itself so it is more obvious at first glance.

There is an autosuggest/autocomplete tool on the search box which takes users to a results page different from the one if autocomplete has not been used. If there are no plans to standardise the pages in future then this seems inconsistent. This layout of the autocomplete results page makes the different types of results more prominent and better differentiated and users on this page found the iPlayer links more easily.
This extract shows the autocomplete results page and the prominence of iPlayer links:

The autocomplete tool only seems to be populated with index headings and series titles rather than programme titles which caused some confusion for our users who weren’t aware that the documentary “Secrets of Scientology” was a Panorama programme. Thus typing “Scien…” brought up Science in Action and Church of Scientology but not the programme title as shown in this clip.

Embedded iPlayer

Another issue  highlighted by those users who used the main search field was that the experience of iPlayer differs between accessing it embedded within programme pages and accessing it in the iPlayer pages. In the embedded version one user could not tell if she was looking at the most recent episode of Songs of Praise as there is no obvious date label. When asked to find how to share the programme with friends the users who had accessed iPlayer from the programme pages had great difficulty finding this feature.  For those users searching for their programmes in this way, it’s possible that they may never even access the iPlayer pages themselves.

Additional Features

This next clip shows one user struggling to find how to share or recommend the programme and looking through the Help pages for it:

Those users attempting to browse for the documentary had some difficulty. Category headings do not seem to reflect users’ own perceptions and may be too internally focused. For example, the Panorama documentary on Scientology is contained in ‘News & Current Affairs’ whereas our users tried to find it in ‘Factual’. The programme lists are sorted by date by default but this is not immediately obvious nor is the option to change this. Fortunately the iPlayer’s own search and results pages proved a successful back up in these instances but browsing could be improved to support users without a particular programme in mind.

One of the new features is the ability to indicate Favourites and iPlayer will then collect them in your Favourites collection. This concept was well understood by most but none of the users indicated that they would know how to go about doing this. There is a star icon underneath the video window that can be clicked and toggled on or off. However this does not appear to be available in the embedded version of iPlayer in the programme pages which is why several of our users missed the feature.

The new Last Played feature was intended to allow users to view programmes from where they left off. However our tests showed that the feature did not display any programmes that had been only partially watched. This could be a temporary bug.


On the whole, it seems that the redesign is supporting the primary user goal very well. There are several ways available for users to find their programmes easily although identifying types of search results could be clearer. Featured programmes on the home page pod and in the iPlayer section surface the most popular items and aid serendipitous discovery of others. Browsing and taxonomies could be improved on in future releases to ensure it more closely matches users’ understanding rather than reflecting the BBC’s internal language and categorisation.  The embedded iPlayer could include the additional features of the full version however they could be considered more appropriate for the frequent user rather than the casual surfer.
Lastly, one of our older users (surely now a significant proportion of the BBC’s internet audience) highlighted that the readability of the site could be improved upon which would improve accessibility for the older generation.

If this could be achieved without affecting the slick visual design then together with the improvements suggested above I  think the iPlayer team could then collectively turn off their computers and book that long holiday they’ve probably been denying themselves up to now – job done.

23 Responses to “BBC iPlayer redesign – user experience review

  • Graham Morley
    9 years ago

    Interesting review, thanks. Certainly highlights the value of user testing. Even though the iPlayer is a successful product, performing these tests has highlighted things that could be pretty easily implemented to make it even better. Particularly enjoyed the thoughts re the embedded player.

  • Hi I’m the social media executive for BBC Online.

    Thanks for your post which I passed on to both our search and iPlayer teams. I know they’ve read it with interest. Hopefully there may be some developments in searchnext month which they’ll be bale to tell you about then.

    In the meantime you might be interested in this blog post:


    • Alex Norton
      9 years ago

      But in the meantime voxpopuli has been loud and clear- the redesign has been an unmitigated disaster. I know the design team has been hiding their head in the sand and avoiding any kind response to the hundreds of message board comments begging for a return to the much more user friendy previos version, but that, linked to a rushed untested beta for the desktop client that erases anything downloaded (6 weeks after the fact we have yet to hear a peep from anyone at the BBC)

      You have to roll back to the previous desktop client (it actually worked) and then test your new releases better

      With regards to the web people are furious (don’t take my word for it – just read the message boards)
      Over a number of issues
      -you introduced bells and whistles very few care about but think were “very interwebs 2.0
      – you removed listing by channel
      -it takes a long scroll then multiple clicks to get to categories and even then, by some absurd rational known to the elected few, you default to listing in reverse order of something – few people know what, resulting in 10 pages of repeats. It takes another click to have them ordered A-Z which, miraculously cuts the pages to navigate by half

      Just read the boards starting from September 6th- get a feel of the anger and frustration you have engendered. You had a great site, it worked, and it was in everybody’s comfort zone. You then decided to throw the baby out with the bath water and have been unilling to address your user’s frustrations.

  • Alex Norton
    9 years ago

    Yes – there was one response three days later – then silence…..

    Gareth linked yet another Beta on October 4th in the Service updates , but that did not solve any of the problems on the deletion of the downloads. Since then silence – not ONE response to all the technical issue

    The issue is that it is not “some” people – of all the comments in the message boards (two hundred comments in two threads alone) 3 or 4 were positive. Denying the outpouring of feeling that came over the message boards (trust me, I’ve been looking every day hoping that someone from the BBC would solve the disappearing downloads issue0 would be disingenuous to say the least.

    In the end you tried to change the two ways we know as iplayer – the web site and the Cliient – both were poorly thought out and tested, and then released on the public even though Beta feedback was incomplete and negative.

    You ran two websites during the Beta phase – that means that you can run two versions Iplayer CLassic and Iplayer 2.0 now. That is the one way you can see if the public will adopt your redesign, and, if not why not.

    Likewise with the Client. Roll it back a few versions. – you had a stable version that used to work well. By all means work on a new version but, like most releases, keep it in Beta for at least 4/5 months until “forcing” updates. In fact there is not one good reason to force any updates at all unless the technolgy infrastructure has changed.

  • lonneke
    9 years ago

    I no longer see iplayer in program page at all, no buttons, nothing!

  • Hi Alex – the new iPlayer has not been a “disaster”.

    It’s true that some people do not like it and have said so.

    Sorry Nic K but the forced update has been an unmitigated disaster for thousands of users. As Alex mentioned or suggested, actually browse the iPlayer message board then you may see how ridiculous and disingenuous your reply regarding “Some people” truly is.
    The simple truth is the update should have been an optional update, as many software developers allow (Nero/Adobe etc) and only available after an extended trial, as mentioned earlier by Alex.
    Along with the expiry problems the inability for users to download in iPlayer format , while a great free advert for WMP, is actually an extremely poor advert for the techies behind iPlayer at the Beeb.
    Where video compression is concerned I would suggest “Size does matter” and as WMP files are 10-15% smaller than the iPlayer format I personally only ever used to d/l in iPlayer format.
    That said the iPlayer is a great wee utility and allows catch up on a variety of shows. However the current problems may end up alienating previous, current users and the problems highlighted on the message boards may deter new users which would be a shame 🙂

    • NIck Reynolds
      9 years ago

      “thousands of users” – how many thousands? I’d be interested to know how you come to arrive at “thousands”.

      • Alex Norton
        9 years ago

        I will do the maths for you, as I had a free 45 minutes:

        Comments just from the official BBC Iplayer message Boards

        From the Suggestion Board:
        BRING BACK THE OLD iPLAYER 6 replies
        Let’s start a campaign? Bring back the old iplayer 24 replies
        New iPlayer 6
        The new iPlayer has nearly had me in tears 35
        please can we have the a-z thing back? 7
        How do we get the BBC to respond to requests for access to the old iPlayer? 21
        Changes to iPlayer make it almost unbearable to use! 13
        Had enough! How do I revert to old iPlayer? 8
        Most important new feature suggestion: Revert to previous version option. 13
        IPlayer is RUBBISH 34
        I hate the new i-player! (sorry: a RAGE) 19
        The new version of BBC I-player is terrible 46
        This new player is bad – as is the help section 11

        From the Service Updates Board:
        An update for any iPlayer users who have been experiencing downloading issues. 39
        New BBC iPlayer 128

        From the Genral DiscussionBoard
        New BBC iPlayer Desktop beta 53
        New iPlayer messed up on Mac. 9
        New iPlayer Deleting Programmes – aaaargh! 20
        Latest Forced Update of Desktop Player 12
        New iplayer a poor replacement 15
        Please respond on the premature expiry of downloads problem 41
        New iplayer is tosh – agree or disagree? 32
        Why does iPlayer not work at all 9
        The new version 64
        Is Anyone At The BBC Listening To Us? 11
        New I Player is fantastic!!! 9

        This last one I was happy to find as everything was so negative I was beginning to worry you would have thought I was making up the data. I was dissapointed when i clicked on it and the person had written: “Not really I just thought this thread might get read by someone with the power to re-add the old function of being able to search all playable programmes by alphabetical order.”

        So we have a total of 782 comments
        ( I ignored many many othe r comments below 8 replies)
        Positive comments 4 (god knows I would love to be disproved – if nothing else becuse it would mean you would have to wade through the messages yourself to find them)

        Please remember that in order to comment t they have to:
        click on help
        click on message boards
        click on BBC iplayer
        Register a new BBC ID
        wait for ID email
        Confirm the registration

        if 748 users (even cut them in half because of multiple comments) it is statistically extremely easy to extrapolate that to “thousands” of actual users that do not have the time, nor resources or know how, to actually comment on a small board that is not easy to find.

        It is clear from your absence that the iplayer message board is not a place you frequent, a bit odd, given your position, but all we see there is, in the last month and a half is 27 posts by Jon Host and a handful by Gareth.. that’s it.

        It is this lack of self awareness that seems to infuriate us users. Or maybe you are very aware that it has been a bit of cock-up – but damn it if you are going to respond to any of the users of the software, or give us a timetable of your thinking. How about a roadmap? How about a frank discussion (in the message boards).

        You wanting to add to the iplayer experience (i’m talking about the web client) is of course commendable but you threw the baby out with the bathwater, you made it harder for people to find what they want (no matter what you say you will never convince anyone that by removing features you make it easier). You have so much which is good – a clean design, a pretty robust search engine (but I wish it was more like google that can double guess that if you wrote “Moyels” you might be searching for “moyles”, etc)
        I think the categories are your biggest strength – but
        give the user the ability to default to A-Z mode and not “last scheduled”
        Allow them to see them all on a page, if the want, and not have to click on 10 separate pages, (these last you can easily store in a user cookie)

        Re the desktop client – just simply offer back the last version 2.X that was stable, and worked, and did not delete stuff immediately, or after a day or so.

      • There in lies a real problem.
        As “Social Media Executive” for BBC online you respond to comments on the iPlayer and rather than comment on the failings decide to question the numbers of users and their problems with the updated iPlayer.
        No mention on the iPlayer format downloads problems.
        No mention on the forced update.
        No mention on the “Expired download ” problems.

        Rather sad that a Beeb executive elects to question a submission rather than answer points raised in a submission.

        A reply worthy of a politician and SOP`s it appears.

  • Alex – good to see that you don’t equate hundreds of comments with hundreds of users. Those hundreds of comments might be three users commenting a lot.

    Ian – some of the things you mention have been dealt with on both the blog and on the message boards. And I will be trying to bring people more information on the blog as soon as possible.


    • Nic K

      Alex – good to see that you don’t equate hundreds of comments with hundreds of users. Those hundreds of comments might be three users commenting a lot.

      And the opposite is also a likelihood or possibility .

      One simple question I hope you can answer.

      Why was the update not left as an option.

  • Nick, “might be”? It saddens me to see that response as it confirms that you have not and/or will not read the message boards because, had you done so you would not have written what you just wrote.

    Maybe we are trying to talk to the wrong person – as you are responsible for social media I realize that the iplayer must not be under your purview because, the social media aspect of it was only recently added, but it is sad to realize that the one person who should be aware what “the buzz” is around the BBC is blissfully unaware of it.

    By all means, keep thinking that it is a handful of disgruntled nerds who spend their time in message boards, and that the public at large is happy.

  • Hi Alex – if you can show me some evidence that the “public at large” is unhappy I’d be grateful.

    If the iPlayer was a “unqualified disaster” as you say then that should be reflected in the iPlayer’s performance. But the latest performance pack of iPlayer numbers which have been published on the blog today does not show that the “public at large” is deserting iPlayer in large numbres because of the new design. There was a slight decrease in September, but not a “disaster”.

    See this link:

    I’m aware of what people are saying on both the boards and the blog and trying to get suitable updates for them on the blog where I can. You may find this comment of interest:

    • Nick,

      If I want to view BBC programs what options do I have?
      1) BitTorrent
      2) Iplayer
      3) er… that’s it

      So even if you reduced iplayer to the one you had in 2007 you would see the same numbers, no more no less – simply because iplayer is the only solution to deliver the content. But the point is not whether it does the job, but HOW it does the job. The Web client does the job, but the experience, for those who have gone to the effort to voice their feedback, does not do in as easy, or simple a manner than the previous Client.

      If we are talking about the desktop client, the situation is worse because it is simply not working. I have dona ALL the solutions I see in the message boards and still, the moment I go to play a program I have downloaded it tells me that “There is a problem with the program” and promptly deletes it – and , judging by the number of messages – plenty of others have the same problems. We all suspect that it is DRM caused, and we all realize that the BBC cannot do away with DRM, but you have a version that worked – just roll back to it, or, at give the users a choice. That, in the end, is all people want – a choice.

      I gave you more evidence that the public at large is unhappy than you have shown that it isn’t. As I demonstrated Users cannot abandon iplayer because it is the only tool they have to watch BBC content. If other solutions were available then I would agree with “#of downloads” as a good benchmark. But it isn’t.

      • Alex – you haven’t given me any evidence that the “public at large” is unhappy. You’ve given me evidence that some users are unhappy and have said so on the message boards. Some users is not the same as the “public at large”.

        Regarding iPlayer desktop see the link I posted in my prevous comment. As far as I can tell the issue outlined there is not DRM related.

        I’m trying to get an update for the blog by the end of the week.


      • And you havn’t given me any that they are happy. I at least gave you empirical evidence that those users that did express an opinion expressed it negatively. If your only empirical evidence was the fact that downloads actually decreased in September and that tool is the only tool available to do that task then your empirical evidence is a bit shaky.

        One quick and very cheap way of settling the “happiness” is simply to add to the Website a nice simple survey question. “Do you like the new iPlayer?” In fact I’m surprised you didn’t think of asking the users whether they like it or not.

        Will you do it? No, didn’t think so…..

        On the otherhand I am glad to see the techs have found the possible bug. I will look forward to the update.

        One last thing: Think like a user. If I have an issue with iplayer whare do I go? I go to the help page. Then where do I go? to the FAQs or to the message board.

        The point is this – Why not tell people that the bug may have been identified in the actual place where people are looking for solutions rather than in a tangential blog? Would that not make sense?

  • klmcdonnell
    9 years ago

    Thanks for all the comments on this. It has certainly sparked some lively debate. What’s also clear is that when it comes to making changes to something whether it be a physical product, website or application, one should always be aware of the emotional value it holds. In the case of the iPlayer redesign this appears similar to having someone come in to your home and tinker with your telly, but with many, many more people sitting on the sofa.

  • Thanks for posting this, great insight on what is typically a confidential piece of UX work.
    Needless to say, the comments thread is hilarious – very entertaining.

  • Catherine Devreux
    8 years ago

    Thanks Alex for articulating my frustration with both the new system and the attitude of the people responsible. I am a scientist involved in health research, where it is generally recognised that there is an inevitable bias among those responsible for introducing something new to show a positive outcome. What strikes me is the apparent lack of objectivity on the part of the BBC. They seems to have little appreciation of the need for genuinely independent evaluation. I think this may account for their tendency to pooh pooh negative feedback, whitewash the results and generally make it difficult to comment. Further, it is now accepted good research practice to involve the public at all stages in a development, from conception through to evaluation. It seems extraordinary to me that such a major development could have been undertaken without those responsible knowing that certain features (eg the A-Z listings etc ) were vital. It suggest a gross level of ignorance and arrogance on the part of those responsible. One can only wonder at the process of governance that allowed this to happen in a public sector organization.

  • I have almost given up on iplayer now. I no longer browse, miss lots of stuff I would have found interesting, and my heart sinks if I do visit the page and I am confronted with some trashy programme they obviously want me to watch. I would be interested to see what the viewing figures have been before and after the change (and what type of programmes). This was something that worked perfectly well but now they are trying to push people towards the “most popular” just like the news website is trying to.. Awful, awful, and to see them trying to smooth away genuine concerns from members of the public on BBC TV’s “points of view” was just embarrassing.

Trackbacks & Pings

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