On the 18th of January we launched ‘A History of the World in 100 objects‘, a series of 100 programmes, narrated by Neil MacGregor, Director of the British Museum, focusing on 100 objects from the British Museum’s collection, travelling through two million years time to retell the history of humanity through the objects we have made.

My main responsibilities as Creative Director were concept generation, commissioning, working with marketing to create a consistent brand message across multiple platforms and leading the user experience and design of the website. The scale of this project has been huge as it involves numerous parts of the BBC including Radio 4, CBBC, BBC teams in the nations and regions and the partnership with the British Museum. From beginning to end the development of the digital proposition was a very involved process, so I have written an overview of the key phases of the project that will hopefully give a feel of how we approached each stage.

My involvement on the project kicked off with a team of three of us commissioning research so that we could gain some audience insight as well as understanding the various attitudes people have towards history. After this I led a 3 week design process involving several members of the user experience and design team. The research provided a good foundation upon which to base various design decisions and to think about the motivations of people visiting and interacting with the ‘A History of the World’ experience. After picking out and discussing the key themes we decided to focus on sketching various elements of the online experience that we thought would be the most engaging for the audience. This included interface ideas for exploring the  homepage, interaction techniques for uploading content and different methods for displaying objects.

Here are some sketches from the various workshops by Sarah Challis and Aidan O’Brien.

Aidan’s sketch of the homepage interface

A sketch of a possible filtering interface

Sarah’s sketch of a box that you can fill with content

A navigation element

Following on from the sketching phase the next step was to evaluate our work and ideas and think about fleshing out a coherent user journey that we could wireframe. In this stage of the project we had to be ruthless about what we wanted to focus on. The benefit of going through a process of discussing and sketching ideas is that it generates lots of material that you can use to evaluate concepts with a wider group and validate against research. The challenge is then distilling this material into something workable. The team approached this challenge by looking at the component parts that would make a compelling audience proposition and then translated this into a narrative to articulate the concepts.

I’ve picked out some elements that emerged as an outcome of this phase of work. Here you can see the thoughts the team had for presenting the objects in an interface that would enable the audience to pan across the grid in different directions and zoom in and out and filter the objects by colour, time, location and so on.

A lot of work went into the object page that would provide users with a rich interface for exploring the object, finding out about its history and the ability to add to their own virtual collection.
There was also some nice work done on the form that people would use to upload their own objects. Here you can see an example of bringing a bit of fun into an otherwise often tedious process.

Using MMS to upload objects to the project was a compelling idea, Matt Isherwood mocked up some examples of how this might look.

The benefit of going through this process is that it gave the project some shape and clarity that we didn’t have when the project kicked off. Because of its scale and many variables it was useful to generate lots of ideas of how the digital experience could manifest itself and then distill this thinking into what we thought was practicably possible within the timeframe we had. The outcome of the wireframing provided a useful tool to iterate our ideas as the project progressed. We also used it as a document that would reflect the various stakeholder requirements in a visual form.

Following on from the initial design exploration I was involved in commissioning and selecting an agency who could work with us to realise our ambitions for the project. The agencies we invited to pitch were evaluated on a strict criteria that includes assessing their technical capabilities, creative flair and project management. Good Technology was the agency we selected and soon after awarding them, the next step was talking through our vision and working out an approach for how both my team and Good Technology would collaborate.

The design, interaction and implementation phase of the project involved working with Good Technology very closely in order to deliver our vision of the ‘A History of the World’ proposition. The core team at this stage involved myself as Creative Director, Chris Thorne (Lead Information Architect), Tom Spalding (Senior Designer), Katherine Campbell (Editor).

The wireframes that Tom and Chris had been iterating up to this point documented every page and interaction throughout the website and this formed the basis of what we asked Good Technology to design and build. At this stage Chris was also defining the information architecture of the website using domain driven design principles to help inform the technical build. He has written about this in more detail over at his blog.

An example of a wireframe by Tom that documents an interaction pattern for filtering by colour.

One of the challenges was translating the wireframes into something interactive. At an early stage we discussed how the homepage interface could manifest itself and the different interface elements that would enable the audience to explore the many thousands of objects.

We weren’t wedded to the idea of the grid and without having prototyped it we were not sure if it was a usable or scalable interface. However the wireframes did convey overall concepts of filtering and exploration. Through a process of brainstorming and reassessing our initial proposition of using a grid based approach, both my team and the Good Technology creative team decided to explore a direction that would make better use of space and depth, the result being what you see on the website now.

Prototyping is really key when your developing an interactive proposition, its essential in order to evaluate how something feels and I try as much as possible to ensure that this happens fairly early in the process. Its also useful to present different scenarios within the prototype, for example in this project we needed to see how usable the interface would be with varying numbers of objects and how the timeline would render when filtering the objects based on various criteria. Good Technology  created several prototypes that illustrated different ways of presenting the objects in 3D space.

Another challenging aspect of the project was the uploading of objects. Our initial design process placed an emphasis on creating a simple process made up of easy to digest chunks. We also wanted to use metaphors for different attributes of the objects such as gauging size by expressing whether its as big as a house or small as a mouse. Unfortunately for various reasons, this is one area of the project that we had to scale back but through many rounds of iteration we tried to make the form as simple and as short as possible within the technical constraints.

We worked hard with Good Technology to design and develop the object pages, incorporating zooming and panning functionality for the British Museum objects and exploring the user experience of tag based navigation and listening to broadcasts and podcasts.

Encouraging audience participation was one of the core objectives right from the outset of the project. Although the focal point of the project is the 100 objects from the British Museum, there has been a huge drive to encourage local museums to contribute items from their collections and inspire the public to upload their own objects to the website. Having a quick look on google you can see how ‘A History of the World’ has been covered in the local press, its great to see  so much exposure at a local level as hopefully it will encourage people to listen to the broadcasts and then contribute. As Angela Robert, BBC project manager for ‘A History of the World’ in Scotland, says in the Guardian:

“We hope everyone can get involved by uploading pictures of their objects to the BBC’s A History Of The World website to help tell the story of Scotland’s influence on the world and, in turn, the world’s influence on Scotland.”

These vox pops filmed as part of the project are of people talking about objects that they would contribute.

Overall ‘A History of the World’ was a challenging and exciting project to have been involved in. From my perspective, working with such a diverse number of people all working towards the same vision was a very rewarding experience.