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Feature

posted 7 Feb 2002 in Volume 5 Issue 5

Through the Gateway

A collaborative intranet tool for the BBC

The BBC’s intranet is used by employees both as a daily workspace and as a means of exchanging knowledge. Iain Duncan explains how the corporation sort to enhance the practical opportunities for collaboration through the use of effective design and incentive programmes.

Talk.gateway is an interactive site on the BBC’s intranet, Gateway, which provides a space for question and answer collaboration as well as more general discussions on important issues. Knowledge is shared among a wide variety of people, each with their own perspectives on a subject. The aim is to facilitate more connections between people across departmental and divisional boundaries and, as a result, foster a more collaborative culture.

We have developed talk.gateway over the past twelve months to fill a gap that wasn’t being covered by existing sites and services on our intranet. To achieve this, it needed to provide an easily understandable and usable interface accessible by a web browser. It had to provide open access to everyone and it needed to encourage individual responsibility for content and involvement.

At the heart of talk.gateway are its users and the knowledge they share. The site has been developed with the emphasis on creating a service that users feel they own and that they can easily get to grips with. By following this development process we have learned a number of lessons about design, technical issues and how to engage people at every level.

Context

The BBC’s use of the corporate intranet as a means of publishing information and providing services has grown organically over the past five years. Different divisions, departments and projects are relatively free to build intranet sites as they see fit. While this has resulted in a diverse range of services available via our intranet, it has also led to a fragmentation of useful information across different sites. A user may wish to learn about and engage in a particular subject or issue, but they first have to find the relevant place where they can do so.

Within this context, individual sites have often looked to provide discussion facilities as part of their service. However, few site owners have direct access to the necessary technology or knowledge required to run discussion forums. As a result, there has been demand for a centrally provided and funded service that can provide for discussion forums on Gateway.

The development process

We decided to concentrate on developing a single intranet site that offered a tool for more collaborative discussions rather than simply a piece of technology for use on individual intranet sites. Experience had shown that most existing discussions on the intranet did not attract many postings after an initial couple of weeks, as they were difficult to find and often existed in something of a vacuum. There was also a general lack of understanding as to what discussion forums were and how best to run them.

A supportive development environment for the service was available thanks to another initiative within the BBC. Four years ago the corporation set up a small team to investigate consumer technologies that might be of use within television and radio production processes. This project, known as DigiLab, evolved into a safe area for new technologies to be tried out and developed without the need for large-scale projects or installations.

It was therefore relatively easy to install a server with some low cost discussion server software and to develop it in a relatively low-key way. These informal arrangements for development work enabled small changes to be made quickly and customisation work to respond to feedback and other issues as they arose. A possible downside with such informal arrangements is the tendency for deadlines to drift, but this is addressed by involving a number of interested people – notably from our internal communications teams – in the process, creating accountability and a more strategic focus.

As various individuals expressed interest in setting up discussion areas, they were brought into the process as stakeholders. By involving these discussion hosts and other users, we created talk.gateway as a shared resource owned by its users was fostered.

Design issues

One of the earliest design issues to be confronted was whether to sub-divide discussion topics into a hierarchical system containing various levels of sub-topics to aid navigation.

There was evidence to suggest that a flatter, less hierarchical structure would work better. Discussion forums are organic in the way that they develop, they grow according to what their users want to do with them. It made more sense to see how specific discussion areas developed naturally before debating whether or not it made sense to sub-divide them in some way. Our approach to organising content was based on the view that users would find it easier to recall information when presented with a longer list of topics than to remember where a sub-topic existed within a hierarchical folder system.

The underlying software running talk.gateway provides for a relatively high degree of functionality customisation. However, it was assumed that the majority of users would have little time to learn the idiosyncrasies of a complex application. A balance therefore had to be struck between ease of use and the provision of engaging functionality. As a result, talk.gateway was built as a fairly minimal discussion forum service with some extra features such as subscriptions, e-mail notifications of new messages, user information pages and some display option settings.

Subscriptions allow users to specify an interest in a particular discussion area and to receive e-mail notifications when new postings are made. Users can also choose to see these new postings displayed on the front page of talk.gateway when they visit. The e-mail subscriptions in particular are proving to be a powerful tool that brings users back to talk.gateway and keeps discussion threads active beyond the initial one or two postings. To help avoid the risk of burying users under e-mails if particular topics become very busy, talk.gateway only sends one notification per topic to each user and waits until the user reads the topic on the site before sending further notifications.

All users have a profile page with some additional details of their interests and activities if they choose to supply them. The profile page displays the last few postings that a user has made, giving a flavour of their activity on talk.gateway. Users can also supply a photograph for their profile, which is displayed next to each posting they make. While this is in some ways just a pleasant design feature, there have already been a number of instances of people spotting faces from talk.gateway at meetings and striking up fruitful conversations.

A limited range of display options is available to the user, allowing for some customisation to the presentation of the various discussion threads. This is kept to a minimum and current evidence suggests that many users don’t even bother accessing these settings.

Many of the icons and buttons supplied with the software were removed and replaced with text links. Icons often present usability problems with users having to decipher what they mean. Talk.gateway was planned to function as an interactive website rather than an application delivered through a web browser. Users should not therefore require any training to work with it. Using text links has also helped to address accessibility issues, ensuring that navigation options are available to, for example, visually impaired users with screen reader software.

Human issues

Ultimately, the goal of the technology is simply to provide a usable and sociable space for human interaction online. Technological and design hurdles can usually be overcome with some short-term, focused work. Issues around how to organise and facilitate human involvement – how people use the discussion areas – take longer to work through.

One of the mistaken assumptions that many people make about online discussion forums is that somehow they will just run themselves. Unfortunately, such forums often end up not directly engaging with those wanting to discuss or give feedback on a particular topic.

In fact, online discussions work in much the same way that other forums, such as face-to-face meetings, work. It is simply the medium that has changed. Users still need to be able to easily understand what a particular discussion area is focusing on, which sort of topics are being talked about and what an appropriate contribution might look like. The easiest means of assessing this information is to look at existing discussions and postings, just as someone new to a face-to-face group would spend some time assessing what sorts of conversations were taking place.

To address this, each discussion area has a host. The host is someone responsible for nurturing, guiding and looking after the area. The most effective hosts are usually individual enthusiasts with knowledge of the subject area covered and a desire to help others.

The host needs to be active in encouraging users to contribute and respond to discussions and to start new discussions when activity levels drop. Hosts ensure that questions are answered, often by finding people who might be able to contribute a response. The host also keeps an eye out for postings that may offend users, that break our minimal set of ‘house rules’ or that might be better asked via a different channel, and takes action as appropriate. The emphasis is firmly on the host facilitating rather than policing discussions. This is reflected in the use of the term ‘host’, as opposed to ‘moderator’ or ‘editor’, to describe the role.

We have found that the most active discussion areas are those offering a general area for asking questions or kicking ideas about and those focusing on specific activities. Areas set up for particular groups of people - departments, project groups and so on – usually run out of steam fairly quickly as it is often not obvious to users what kind of topics would be covered by such a group. Topic-based discussion provides a much clearer focus for users and helps to draw people in, offering a variety of different perspectives.

Our busiest area is currently a general ‘queries and questions’ section where users can ask a question about anything not specifically covered elsewhere. The breadth of questions asked in this area – from technical queries about software protocols to people trying to set up string quartets – and the quality of answers received from a wide variety of sources is testament to the practicality of a flat structure and a lack of detailed categorisation.

We have a second general area for people wishing to discuss a topic at more length rather than just wanting to ask a question. It started out as an area for users to suggest and request new discussion areas, but it seemed that most users simply wanted to discuss a topic for a short period without the longer-term commitment of hosting a separate discussion area. Our design decisions were influenced by the ongoing use of the site.

Among the more popular discussion areas concerned with specific activities, we have an area offering help with the BBC’s new financial system and an area to get assistance with developing content for our intranet. These areas allow users to help each other with questions and problems rather than searching through manuals or raising calls through general helpdesks. In many ways, it is simply an extension of the practice of going to an office expert for help rather than using more formal support routes. A well-hosted discussion forum offers the advantage that such queries are read by and are available to a much wider audience.

As the people responding to queries are often experts and enthusiasts themselves, the quality of response is often higher and more detailed than one would receive via a more general helpdesk or knowledge base. A helpdesk may still be needed to get a problem fixed, but users are better informed as a result of asking the question first. One possible risk is of inaccuracies being perpetuated through online discussion forums, but we have found that the ongoing process of debate and the involvement of those with authoritative knowledge are usually sufficient to address this.

Often the problem facing users looking for specialised help or information not provided via a helpdesk is that they don’t know who to call or who to ask. A tool such as talk.gateway provides a starting point for addressing the query to a large audience across the organisation. Many users will have an answer to offer and these users are often happy to help with such questions because of the recognition achieved and the resultant widening of their own circle of influence.

It can often be extremely difficult for people within organisations to develop working contacts across departmental and divisional boundaries unless their work specifically requires it. An increase in such contact and collaboration can aid innovation, and a tool such as talk.gateway helps to foster this sort of activity.

Archiving and searching

The main focus of talk.gateway is on allowing individual users to interact in a collaborative fashion. People with questions are encouraged to ask them rather than to hunt for answers in archives. As questions are answered and discussions take place, we are building an important source of valuable information that must be retained in an easily accessible and usable format.

It has proved a practical option to simply allow older discussions to drop gradually down the list of available topics. As the list of old subjects grows in each discussion area we are starting to archive them when it seems helpful to do so. This means automatically marking a discussion topic as archive material after no postings are made for three months. These archived topics are moved to a read-only folder within the relevant discussion area. It is possible that as more archived topics are added some manual categorisation may become necessary.

In this way, knowledge contained in older topics is still available should a user choose to look for it. However, they are still able to start up a new thread on a similar topic if they wish to. In fact, switching older topics to read-only access encourages those with a need for more information to post a new topic, keeping the information on talk.gateway fresh and up-to-date. While this may initially appear a slightly messy approach it seems to reflect the way people want to find information.

A simple, text-based search engine is available that allows users to search for content. The search engine presents results retrieved at all levels, from discussions down to individual postings. The search engine can also be used to look for postings made by a specific user. It is envisioned that as the volume of archived material grows the relative importance of the search engine as a route into content will become greater.

Future developments

Talk.gateway has enjoyed considerable success since it went live in July 2001. It currently has around 600 registered users and attracts around a thousand page requests a day. It has received minimal publicity as a result of the decision to let the service grow at its own rate rather than pushing it too heavily. As a result, many users have a sense of ownership in their use of the site and feel that they have found something genuinely different and useful.

Having achieved the objective of building a solid base of registered users and many design issues resolving themselves through an iterative development process, it is time to look ahead and plan out a route for developing talk.gateway beyond its current reach and scope.

We plan to incorporate active content from talk.gateway within the main portal for our corporate intranet. This will initially consist of the four or five most recently added topics, but could potentially be customised to reflect the specific interests of users. This content could also be syndicated to other intranet sites with links back to talk.gateway. There is also scope for integrating the site with other intranet services, perhaps by making user profile information available to a people-finding or internal directory site.

We need to increase the uptake of e-mail subscription options and to make it easier for users to forward interesting threads to others. But this must also be balanced against the dangers of allowing e-mail notifications to become a nuisance to users.

There is still considerable scope for simplifying the structure of talk.gateway towards offering only a few quite general, top-level discussion areas. Content within these areas would only be categorised as part of the archiving process after a particular topic of discussion hadn’t received any postings for two or three months. The lifespan of any discussion area would therefore be largely decided by user interest.

To develop talk.gateway further we will need to grow and develop its broad audience, and therefore its wide range of potential answers to questions, while maintaining a sense that there is relevant and accessible content available for everyone.

Iain Duncan is intranet consultant at the BBC. He can be contacted at: iain.duncan@bbc.co.uk


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