The Myth of Customization?

By | June 14, 2009

I noticed that the BBC website, one of the most trafficked news websites on the planet, is abandoning customization due to an apparent lack of interest. Instead of being able to choose between a UK version and an international version, all visitors will get the same homepage.

Steve Herrmann explains it thus:

So why bother with the change? Because the option allowing you to choose “site versions” (which relatively few of you actually chose to use) has started to lead to some potentially frustrating experiences for you, as well as some significant technical complications for us.

He says that one of the reasons for this is because of conflicting rights and legal issues to do with audio and video, which “has led to a growing number of potentially confusing results.”

But another reason is that it makes it easier to feed ads to overseas users:

The change also means that the advertising which you can see on our pages if you are outside the UK can be integrated around our pages without the need to change page formats for the UK version of the site.

Makes good economic sense. But to me the most telling thing about this is that users just weren’t using the customization enough. And not just the choosing the UK or international version, but the whole module thing that the BBC set up some time ago, allowing users to create a sort of iGoogle, or NetVibes homepage. Herrmann says that international users won’t be able to do this anymore but adds

[i]t was used by a relatively small number of you, but if you were one of them – I’m sorry, and please bear with us while we work on developing the site. We’ll be looking at how to make the site customisable in other ways as part of that work.

This is all quite revealing. I’d suggest a couple of quite possible conclusions:

  • Perhaps BBC website users don’t care so much about customization because they care more about what the BBC editors choose to be the news. In other words, part of the value in the content is the choice of that content, its placement, what is left in and taken out etc.
  • Users just don’t have time to customize stuff. My long-running point is that the scarcity in news is now attention. If you insist on users taking up some of that attention time with customization—whether or not it may save them time in the long run—it does not seem to be an investment users are willing to make. (Unless, perhaps, they pay for it?)
  • Customization is hard. It’s not easy to make it palatable and appealing to users.

BBC – The Editors: Changes to international pages

6 thoughts on “The Myth of Customization?

  1. eszter

    Interesting. I study Internet user skill and I suspect a lot of it is #3. First, many people don’t even realize that customization is possible. Second, even if they do, they may lack the skills to make it work.

  2. eszter

    Not sure why my comment says “many people like don’t”.. I must’ve started out wanting to say something about what many people like, but then changed course. Weird. Note to self: use Preview function.:-)

  3. French Guy

    I read the BBC site and had no idea that you could customize it, so I’m guessing that I lot people wouldn’t have known it was possible.


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