UX Insider Interview – Jane Murison talks about UX at the BBC
by Damian Rees, Founder & UX Director

UX Insider Interview – Jane Murison talks about UX at the BBC

Next up in our UX insider series I caught up with Jane Murison, Head of UX&D, Children’s, BBC Knowledge & Learning.


Wow that’s some job title you have there. Can you tell me what a Head of UX&D, Children’s, BBC Knowledge & Learning does?

Well, I’m Head of User Experience.

We’ve got six Heads of User Experience, because the UX Team in the BBC is about 120 people. As such, we’re divided up into groups. I probably look after about 30 of them, and I take on a portfolio, which includes things like the CBeebies Playtime App, CBBC Go, and BBC iWonder.

What I do on a daily basis is probably a mixture of looking after team stuff, and then more broadly looking after strategic projects for our department and making sure they happen.

A lot of the time, I’m trying to make sure that we’ve got a coherent user experience. It has a tendency to drift apart because the BBC is massive. That’s kind of the entropy of our user experience, so we work hard on having a very consistent global experience that ties everything together, whilst trying to give the products enough freedom to actually be distinctive and right for the people that care about them individually.


What would you say would be the key differences in designing or researching for children?

You need to get used to the idea that the users you want to understand can’t actually talk, or they won’t talk because you’re terrifying to them for some reason. Those are problems. Facilitators tend to get categorized as teachers by the over-5s. You’ll see them try and meet your approval and get an ‘A’ essentially, so breaking through that can be very difficult. So you’ve got to use a sense of anarchy and comedy to try and push through some of that stuff.

It’s also important to make sure that your user research is user friendly.  If your users are four foot tall, and they come into a lab that’s set up for adults, kids might not be able to climb up on the furniture properly and might just be totally freaked out by the environment. So, making it softer and friendlier is really important. We also test with friendship pairs and ask one of them to explain the interface to the other one. That can really help to break through some of those barriers.

Then, in terms in designing for children, there’s a bit of a disease of the mind in the industry, that somehow kids don’t deserve good design. You get to see quite a lot of scrappy user interfaces. A bit too much comic sans for my liking. There are some core assumptions, which I’m still waiting to get data on. Like, kids love bright colours. Really? I mean, probably, but I haven’t seen any decent evidence to say so.


“there’s a bit of a disease of the mind in the industry, that somehow kids don’t deserve good design.”


One of the things that comes up a lot when talking to UX leaders is internal politics. Is that the same for you?

I’d say that internal politics are unavoidable in a company that’s got more than three people in it. The larger the company, the larger the politics, the more layers on the onion, so to speak. Yes, I think that that’s a massive part of what I think UX ought to be doing. We ought to be creating a political space for good user experience to happen. We can do that by making sure that we’ve got strong enough relationships with stakeholders who might know less about UX than we do – developing safe places in the organization, or developing supportive, collaborative places with other disciplines.


How do you convince somebody who is resistant to the role of UX?

You’ve got three different ways of tackling it. One is data, which works very well on certain types of people. There are some groups in the BBC that care very much about audience data and seek a statistical basis for the way that we go about making decisions. It will work very well for technical teams, and it will work very well for producers, or product owners.

It doesn’t work for everyone, though. You also need to have a kind of emotional influencing tool kit as well. Some people work by gut, and if you go in with data, they’re going to get angry with you. It’s a lot about having empathy for your stakeholders, and understanding where they’re coming from, and the place that they’re going to get the most help from.

Then there are other people who honestly just want to fight. They want to have the debate, and they want you to go for it, and feel like they’ve been properly met at a kind of fighty [sic] assertive level.

Yes, so I think you have to make a judgment on, do they want the emotional arguments? Do they want the data arguments? Or do they just want to have a fight? If it’s the last one, I quite enjoy that personally; not everyone does. But it’s good to know that you have to shift your approach depending on the person.


What would you say your biggest UX mistake has been, and what have you learnt from it?

Early on, I probably took part in too many projects that were essentially a black box to the rest of the organization. A UX team that would lock itself in a room for 12 weeks, or longer, and come up with some hugely baroque solution which, sure, had had user testing, but it hadn’t had any organizational testing. It hadn’t had decent conversations with technical teams or product teams about what was the right thing for us, and what business need we were actually trying to achieve.


Quite a lot of people that we’re talking to are working in very commercially driven environments with a lot of success metrics. What do you use to measure success?

Ultimately, that’s the existential drama at the heart of how the BBC works. I think we have to make a call by product about what is the most important thing, and I’d say it’s down to some combination of reach versus ratings. Reach means how many demographic groups, how many different people are we reaching in the UK. Are we making sure that every licensed fee payer is actually getting some value out of their license fee? Ratings is more like the volume: how many actual people get to see it?

In terms of the metrics that we use, we’re behind the industry in some ways, but we’re in the process of using a lot more metrics than we used to, and becoming more quantitative-data literate than we used to be. We’re using a lot more split testing and multi-variant testing than we used to. Recently we’ve been doing a lot of that, for example, looking at how to convert users between CBeebies up to CBBC when they reach five or six, and start being a bit too jaded and mature for CBeebies. We are making much more use of that than we have been in the past, and we’ve recently acquired a large analytics system.


What do you think a commercial UX team could learn from UX at the BBC?

In terms of working for the BBC generally, we just have it easier, because we don’t get caught in a moral dilemma about what makes more money versus what’s right for the user. We can just go with what’s right for the user, and then make sure that what we’re doing is ethical and the right experience. That simplifies things significantly.

I think we do care quite a lot about impact, and how we can do more for less. For example, I look after the Design Research team. When I took it on, we were five people. We’re now up to the glorious number of seven that used to look after a UX team of 120, and an even larger digital division that wants all sorts of design research. Frankly, the maths doesn’t add up; there was no way that we can do the amount of research that we want to unless we accept that, actually, our design researchers cannot do all of the design research, and don’t want to outsource all of it either, because that’s far too expensive.

We’ve been on a bit of a mission to train up multiple people, and we’ve done that by creating a design research champions network. That sort of thing – it feels like if other organizations aren’t doing that, they could be; it’s kind of thing where you might not, as a commercial organization, be able to justify a large specialist team. But if you’ve got a single specialist, maybe they can become a trainer, and a mentor as well.


“It doesn’t matter how good your practice is if you haven’t made sure other people are excited and engaged with it as well.”


In your 12 years at the BBC, what would you say is the most valuable thing that you’ve learnt?

It doesn’t matter how good your practice is if you haven’t made sure other people are excited and engaged with it as well. I’ve seen some amazing designers here, but it’s entirely about influencing people who are not necessarily experts in design to understand what our principles are and what it is that we’re trying to achieve.

I think, initially, I saw stakeholders as the enemy who needed to be thwarted. I was filled with righteous indignation about them not recognising us for our good intentions and pure hearts. I’m increasingly of the opinion that that sort of attitude is what ruins good products. If you don’t have as much empathy for your stakeholders as you do for your users, then you’re never going to be able to make sure that you’ve got a truly empathic product for your users.


What would you say your user experience process is? Do you have a process that you always follow, or is it dependent on the project?

It is project dependent, and I think it ought to be. We use user experience sprints quite a lot, which is a pretty standard process now, taken from Google Ventures. We run a five-day process where you diverge a lot of ideas, prototype and user research them all in one week, and then reset and do it again, and again. But you can only carry on like this for six to eight weeks before everybody burns out and starts crying. I think, there’s always upfront research, there’s always discovering of some sort; and after that you get into cycles of building and researching.



Do you have any particular methods that you find most valuable out of your tool kit?

I think guerrilla testing – putting research into the hands of the designers and product owners –  has been really valuable to us. We do lab-based testing all the time, but I think that in terms of getting people engaged on the ground level, it’s so much better than showing people clips if you can actually get them to interact with users and develop empathy about the people that they are serving their product to.


What’s an example of a good BBC user experience that you’ve worked on recently?

We’ve created this download function in CBeebies Story Time that’s maybe my favourite thing we designed in the last six to twelve months. We’ve created a download function for the under fours. These are users that cannot read, and they’re able to go through a list and download something, and we’ve communicated that entirely visually. So, I’m really impressed with my team on that. I think that they’ve done a brilliant job, and deserve plaudits and all sorts of medals and things.


If you had no constraints at all, so no technical, budget, resource, or internal constraints, what would you change at the BBC, or on a particular BBC website?

I think I’d probably really power up our metadata. Right now, it’s pretty good, but it’s nothing like as good as it needs to be. I know that’s probably the most boring answer you’ve had to any question ever. But, the reason why is because it’s one of these things that people assume is there, like plumbing, and in practice those are all the invisible barriers that people tend to run into when they come up with brilliant ideas.


What advice would you give to somebody out there wanting to join a team like yours? What would you advise them to do in terms of their career path, or how to actually get their CV in front of someone like you?

I would make sure that you’ve got experience at good agencies or in-house, and don’t get trapped. Either way it is worth sometimes taking a step down in order to get to a better environment where you’ll learn more stuff. I’ve seen multiple CVs where someone’s just been trapped in that role. They’re well regarded in that organization, and therefore they get paid higher, and therefore they stay, and then their financial commitment becomes too high for them to actually develop their career. It becomes an untenable situation where they’re not developing, because they’ve hit the ceiling in that agency, and it can be very hard.

I’ve seen people that probably were very good, but they’re now at the point where they’ve learned some bad habits, and they haven’t been challenged in the way that they really need to be.

So if you start to feel like you’re hitting a ceiling, I’d say get out of there, get to a place with more complicated briefs, harder work, even if it means taking a pay cut or a job title cut.


“So if you start to feel like you’re hitting a ceiling, I’d say get out of there, get to a place with more complicated briefs, harder work, even if it means taking a pay cut or a job title cut.”


Yes, that’s good advice. Thinking about where you are now, if somebody was about to start a role like yours in a different organization, have you got any advice for them?

I had no idea how much I would have to be good at managing my diary, which seems like a ridiculous thing to say. You think it’s going to be about strategic thinking, and your ability to negotiate, and all those cool things. Frankly, just knowing how to use your diary, and not getting led around by it rather than you managing your time, and thinking about what do you want to spend your time doing?

There’s always going to be more meetings that you go to, especially in big organizations, – you can fill your day with meetings. But, if you’re sitting in there and you’re not sure why you’re there, you’re wasting your life away, and you’re not going to be achieving anything. You’re going to become one of those seat-warming middle managers. That is an easy trap to fall into, so I would say that is the main thing to get good at.


How did you get into UX?

At University, I studied for my History of Art and English degree, and realized that I was going to be following a mop around McDonald’s if I didn’t get some useful degree. I did a conversion course into Computer Science. I was very fortunate that the course I took was actually jointly run by the Psychology Department at York. Very early on, I realized that actually the skills that I’d got – kind of critical thinking around Design and Aesthetics – was incredibly useful to creating good user experiences, and so I got some HCI stuff very early on.

Then I went on and did a graduate training program in IT, and wasn’t doing that HCI stuff, and found myself being pretty disappointed that it wasn’t part of my role. So, when that finished I actually went and joined an agency after I spotted a job as a Heuristic Evaluator, which is the best job title ever. I got that changed fairly quickly. Unfortunately, it fired up the irritating righteously indignant parts of me. “But don’t they understand that is punishing the user!” I used to love all that stuff. It probably ignited my passion in feeling like people were being unjustly punished by bad user experience.


What would you say separates a good UX person from a great one?

I think you can be quite a good UX person and not deal with stakeholders very well. I think you can be quite a good UX person and maybe feel a bit nervous about speaking to users. I think you can’t really be a great UX person unless you can do both of those things well.


Is there anywhere that you go for UX inspiration at the moment?

Because my portfolio is Children’s, Knowledge and Learning, I feel like I ought to know about the world, and think about that from an educational standpoint. The things that I found really interesting, and inspiring, probably, is Brain Pickings, which is really good. But, there’s a new site that goes with a documentary strand that’s just on TV called, How we get to next? It’s really good, and there’s some really interesting stuff on there.


Are there any interfaces out there that you look at, and think, “Wow! They totally nailed it?”

I think a lot about children’s games. If you haven’t looked at Toca Boca yet, do; those are some of the best educational toys.

What they do is they create toys that are essentially open ended; they don’t generally have a narrative. They are more like things that kids can use for role play, or mini games, like WarioWare. It’s a genius little piece of software, because it’s about enabling the creativity of children rather than taking on the burden of creativity in the game itself. That feels like a really inspiring, brilliant thing.


Is there a book or any kind of resource that you find yourself recommending over and again?

Recently, I’ve been recommending a book called The Reflective Practitioner, which I think is quite a good one for getting good seniors up to creative-director level. The reason why, is that there’s a point where it’s not enough to be able to make good things; you’ve also got to be able to explain how you made it to others, so that they’ll understand, and care about it as well.


Thanks for reading. We’ve got some really exciting UX insider interviews lined up on our mission to interview top UX people. If you would like to be interviewed, or you’d like us to interview anyone in particular please get in touch

You can find Jane on Twitter: @mewroh or see more in our UX Insider series

UX Consultant Emma Peters

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