Interview: Dan Taylor, head of BBC iPlayer

When the BBC set about its coverage for the 2012 London Olympics, it changed audience expectations of how to view content online

When the BBC set about its coverage for the 2012 London Olympics, it changed audience expectations of how to view content online.

Although the broadcaster’s online streaming service, iPlayer, had been around for six years, the way it presented coverage of the Olympics online set a new standard of streaming BBC programmes.

“The promise for the Olympics online was ‘never miss a moment’ and this set a new bar,” says Dan Taylor, head of BBC iPlayer.

Taylor says the BBC used the Olympics to try out a range of new technologies, including the first experimentation with its live restart functionality, which allows the viewer to go back to the beginning of a programme that is being broadcast live, as well as advances to its media player with special plug-ins associated with the Olympics.

It was then that the BBC saw the opportunity to create the “New iPlayer”, which was introduced last week.

“The Olympics was an obvious moment to build on that [the technologies],” says Taylor.

The New iPlayer

But the latest update of iPlayer took some time to put together. Taylor says the BBC did not want to restrict making improvements to the current offering, so it was a work in progress, in parallel with releasing other features, such as mobile downloads, last year. “And we wanted to stay very responsive,” he says.

The BBC has redesigned the iPlayer platform “from the ground up”, changing the look and feel of the interface and improving the way users navigate the website to find shows and discover new content, he says. The last major upgrade to iPlayer was to its web and connected TV versions back in 2010. “Four years ago is quite a long time in online,” says Taylor.

The broadcaster claims the redesign will make it easier for users to find something to watch, as 42% of users arrive at iPlayer with no particular programme in mind.

Data analytics

The BBC is also using data analytics to improve its recommendation engine that suggests content to users, depending on what they have viewed before. The new iPlayer will also feature a sign-in functionality that will allow users to save their favourite TV shows and seamlessly pick up programmes on multiple devices.

At the time of launch, Taylor said the BBC was “playing catch-up” in offering a sign-up service, compared with other organisations.

Sign-in functionality is already used across the BBC. BBC ID is used for BBC Playlister, where users can produce music playlists, and BBC Food, where users can save recipes to binders. Users who have an existing BBC ID can use those sign-in details to access extra iPlayer functionalities.

“We are in the fortunate position of not needing to contrive reasons for people to sign in,” says Taylor. “We’re only doing it to add audience benefit.”

That is the key to innovation – addressing an underlying user need rather than being innovative for innovation's sake

The idea arose from a focus group and user testing, he says. Users found that they liked having favourites on a device, but were frustrated when this didn’t sync with secondary devices.

“The only way to achieve that across multiple devices was to show that the same person is using iPlayer,” says Taylor.

Online grocery services show some similarities to what the BBC is trying to achieve with data and iPlayer, he says. The big supermarkets are fine-tuning their algorthims to understand quickly what customers are looking for, based on their last shop and favourites, and then try to tempt them to try new things based on their previous choices.

“That is the key to innovation – addressing an underlying user need rather than being innovative for innovation’s sake,” says Taylor.

The iPlayer team has developed a new recommendation engine that takes account of more aspects of programmes. “The previous recommendation engine was quite simply genre matching – comedy recommend comedy,” he says. “There’s a lot of variety, even within a single genre.”

The first phase of the new recommendations drills down on more nuanced details, such as channel, the time it was broadcast, format, how similar it is to other genres. Taylor says the next phase will be more about the personalisation of recommendations using anonymised data on viewing behaviour.

“We’re at the start of the journey with recommendations – it’s quite a complicated area,” he says.

Consolidating applications

iPlayer is also concentrating on consolidating the number of versions of the media player it provides across devices. It has 14 different versions across a variety of platforms, but is now consolidating down to responsive web, connected TV, tablet and mobile.

Taylor says the BBC iPlayer team redesigned the meta data API to make the media player fast and more flexible. It also improved the logic layer to create a business logic layer that enables changes to iPlayer to happen in one place and automatically appear on all the different platforms it operates, which saves updating all 14 platforms.

The BBC is saving costs by consolidating this code base, says Taylor. Thanks to responsive web and HTML5, it can offer a consistent iPlayer experience across devices. He says there is a particular push for responsive web on connected TV platforms, because the TVs and games consoles are converging around HTML5.

“The last-generation games consoles used a mixture of different technology,” he says. “Wii used Flash, XBox 360 used Silverlight – but all of the new-generation consoles use HTML, and it feels like a bit of standardisation.”

More on the BBC and technology

But the BBC is not going to stop offering its applications in favour of HTML5; it will still keep its native apps for Android and iOS because mobile apps still offer value beyond a browser experience.

“You have that presence in the app stores: people see them in the top 10 list and download,” says Taylor.

Apps also offer the download and view offline functionality that it introduced to mobile devices last year. Taylor says this is difficult to achieve with responsive web.

As for the other operating systems, Taylor is interested in hybrid models, where native applications pull web pages into the app.

“Windows Phone 8 is an example of a hybrid experience,” he says. “It’s a wrapper app that you download from the Windows 8 store and it pulls in the website, so you’re kind of having some of the benefits of a native app with the responsiveness of a website.”

But in BlackBerry’s case, the operating system has a shortcut application that launches the website in a browser.

“We are making decisions on the level of support based on the usage of different devices," says Taylor. "Apple and Android have the lion's share, so we can justify the cost of developing native applications. Windows Phone 8 is growing its market share, so it is important to offer the experience.”

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