'Intelligent' design personalization at bbc.co.uk

Written by Adrian Holovaty on November 21, 2002

Matt Jones points out an innovative feature of the new bbc.co.uk home page: The background colors of the various sections change based on your browsing habits.

For example, this is how the "News" and "Sport" sections looked when I first visited the page:

Screenshot of site, with 'News' and 'Sport' sections shown

Then, I clicked into the "News" section and repeated this process a few times, to "teach" it that I visit the News section often. When I went back to the home page, "News" was given a darker background color, giving it more prominence:

Screenshot of site, with 'News' highlighted in a darker shade of blue

This is an outstanding idea -- and one I could see being applied to font sizes and positioning, as well. Kudos to the BBC for proving again it is an industry leader in adapting new technologies into its news and information sites (such as RSS feeds and accessibility measures).

I do see one problem, though, with the BBC's implementation of the dynamic background-color changes. Simply put, the home page, by default, already uses quite a few different background colors. So it's hard to tell whether the background color for a particular section is in a darker shade of blue because of personalization, or because of the site designers' judgment. Granted, they're probably still experimenting with this feature, but if they're serious about it, they should make all default background colors the same.


Posted by Ben on November 21, 2002, at 11:07 p.m.:

That is so wicked cool. I thought the same thing about the already-multi-colored boxes when I went there before. Any plans on releasing the code, or writing an article on the premise?

I would love to see a flexible layout version of this concept, where whatever box you clicked on gains a percentage point of real estate each time, eventually taking over most of your page... that's obviously what you're going there for to read, right? It's the introduction of personalization without the editor's fear of the user not seeing/reading other areas.

Posted by Simon Willison on November 22, 2002, at 12:50 p.m.:

That's brilliant. It's so subtle it took me a while to notice it happening, even having read your blog post (I eventaully realised that the news box was significantly darker than the sports one whereas they had started the same shades). I wonder if they ran any tests to see if it actually influenced / helped people's browsing of the site?

Posted by David Sim on November 24, 2002, at 7:36 p.m.:

I agree. A great idea which enhances usability without fundamentally changing the design of the page or removing options.

Posted by Jonathan on November 25, 2002, at 12:13 a.m.:

I hope that the boxes will 'fade' back to the original colors over time if you cease visiting those links. To make it truly useful it should - otherwise it simply tracks my clicking history and is not a true reflection of my behavior.

Posted by halo on November 25, 2002, at 12:27 p.m.:

I disagree actually. I think users that are not web savvy will find it confusing and conflicting with colour coding in other sections.. it is not that clear what it is trying to say. I like the theory but feel it still has a long way to go before it is doing itself any justice. Sorry to be a party pooper!

Posted by Wolf on November 25, 2002, at 8:30 p.m.:

While I agree that it is a brilliant idea, interface design specifically discourages the use of color to imply or trigger action on computers, as many males are color blind. Redundancy of some other type is needed to complement or compensate.

Also, I (fully color-aware) would never have discerned this differentiation if it had not been pointed out.

Posted by boysen on November 25, 2002, at 10:04 p.m.:

Shouldn't the contrast between the text and its background define whether the box is more or less prominent? The darker the box, the more difficult it will be to read the black text.

Posted by KiteeKat99 on November 26, 2002, at 12:12 a.m.:

The colour seems to get darker each time you click on something in the section, but you can only see this if you refresh each time. By clicking in the area several times, you are not teaching it to remember you. More likely, it's setting a cookie, increasing the darkness each time you click. I imagine it resets itself once the cookie expires.

Incidentally, I disagree that this is using colour alone to show functionality. The colour is staying the same, but the darkness/contrast is changing. Colour-blind people should have no problem.

While this is a cool idea, I don't think this adds a whole lot to the usability of the site.

Posted by Matthew Revell on November 27, 2002, at 11:21 a.m.:

I reckon it's irrelevant whether or not a user notices the shade change. What's important is if it enhances the user experience. In fact, it's probably going to be of more use if it subtly directs the user without making them aware of it.

Posted by Sjuul on November 27, 2002, at 12:51 p.m.:

I think it doesn't make any sense. If I have visited a section of a site repeatedly, I clearly don't need any help finding it.

Posted by Richard Rutter on December 10, 2002, at 6:10 p.m.:

As a colour blind user, I just thought that I'd clarify Wolf's point, "interface design specifically discourages the use of color to imply or trigger action on computers, as many males are color blind". Wolf's statement is good and wise, but invalid in this context.

The differences in colour are not a problem, specifically because differences in shade are used, rather than differences in hue (at least to my eyes). In other words, one sees a darker version of the same colour. Colour deficient readers -- and indeed truly colour blind users, who are a rare breed indeed -- will not have a problem with this. Conversely, if the background was changed from red to green or from blue to purple, then colour deficient users would almost certainly have a problem distiguishing between them.

As it happens, the colour coding in this instance is by no means critical to the operation of the site, and could therefore be allowed to degrade gracefully for colour blind users.

Quick plug: You can read more about designing for colour blind users in my article Colours for the Colour Blind.

Posted by Fran├žois Nonnenmacher on December 10, 2002, at 9:53 p.m.:

Another option would be to make the most visited content bubble up, i.e. move the most visited blocks on top of the page. It should do this only on subsequent visits to not disturb visitors with sudden moves of content (like those randomly jumping tabs in Windows palettes), and - to build on Jonathan's post - gradually getting back to a generic layout (most recent content first) when times passes.

I don't know why but I feel more like playing with zoning that with colours. But from Richard's comment the colour path seems a good one.

Posted by Lunaman on December 14, 2002, at 12:15 a.m.:

I could imagine that the default colors for the different blocks on the home page could be set according to the aggregate popularity of each block across all users... such statistics would not be difficult to maintain in real time or extract from the logs after the fact...

Posted by bern on January 22, 2003, at 12:34 a.m.:

It's very clever but not of much use in this context - by clicking around you can probably make all the boxes the same shade - or is that the idea of the game?

Posted by Beowolf on January 24, 2003, at 5:38 p.m.:

I generally go straight to news.bbc.co.uk - does it take account of this when I then go to the main page?

Doesn't seem so.

Posted by Jobriath on December 6, 2003, at 4:13 p.m.:

There's another example of this kind of technique at work that you'll know already: hyperlinks. When you click a hyperlink (unless the designer explicitly makes it otherwise) it will darken, thus drawing your eye to it in the future. I know the eye is drawn to darker objects first on a screen, and thus regularly-clicked objects will bring themselves to the user's attention first.

I'm not sure about moving the elements, even only between sessions. Would you prefer your books in some logical order in which you left them, or in a heap with the last-read to the top? Then again, if there is no logical order - such as in a list of favourite links on a blog - then this kind of technique would help. Ricebowl Journals (a blogging community) uses this with the most popular blogs in the "top 300" section.

Posted by Paula Thornton on February 18, 2006, at 9:13 p.m.:

The concept is sound...kudos to the BBC for conceiving of it and engaging in 'pushing' the envelope. As Fran├žois aluded to, some 'other' treatment of significance could likely be more successful (given the 'challenges' already recounted). There are also other considerations that were not used such as alternative treatments of the borders, the titles, and/or adding graphical 'clues' (a whole variety of options could be experimented with here -- let me know if you see any examples).

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