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Apture trial on BBC News Website a great success

Apture on BBC News Website

The BBC News Website has been trialing Apture for a few a weeks now – it’s been great to see one of my new projects find its way onto on of my old but significant projects.

The Beeb’s has been trialing Apture to provide background context for concepts and themes mentioned in it’s stories. If you want to see a great example of this, check out “Driving primates to the edge“. Tristan Harris, Apture’s co-founder and CEO, writes more about the trial on the company’s blog and the BBC also have a post about the trial on their Editor’s Blog too.

BTW, if you’re not seeing the Apture links on that primate story it may be because you need to switch to the UK version of the BBC News site (the BBC is only trialing Apture on the UK view of it’s site) . Click “UK version” in the BBC page’s left sidebar. If you return to the BBC story page, you should see a box called “BBC trial – in page links”. Click the “Turn on in-page links” button, and Apture’s iconic links should appear on the page.

Emerging results of the trial

Whilst I can’t reveal the exact numbers, the response to the trial has been fantastic – with the vast majority of feedback being overwhelmingly positive.

People like the ease of use and the way they can find out more about a given topic without the need to leave the story they are reading – and that’s exactly the use case Apture was designed to provide. Of course, if you do wish to view the content on it’s original page there is always the opportunity to click through from the Apture window.

However, as to be expected with any trial there has also been a number of people who have raised some concerns, mainly around the fact that the BBC isn’t directly linking to the sources and also the way in which JavaScript is used to create the hyperlinks.

I thought it might be useful to provide my own perspective on these two points – given my unique position of having worked on both projects. Of course, these are my views and not those of Apture nor the BBC.

#1: Not linking directly to other site

Jack Pickard’s comment about the BBC not linking directly to the sources is an interesting one, especially in the light of the BBC Trust’s mandate to the BBC that it must link to external sources more often.

For me, this comes down to appropriate use of the tools available to you. The purpose to Apture is to bring bite size chunks of pertinent content immediately to you, with the specific goal of providing explanation about the theme or concept of whatever you are reading. This helps readability and increases the user’s ability to engage in the story – especially where they may be unfamiliar with the subject matter.

The primate example above is a good one. As you read about the Bonobo chimp Apture gives you the opportunity to find out exactly what it is without the need to break your flow and move off site. To me, that’s a benefit and a good use of Apture.

However, where the journalist has made reference to Conservation of Nature’s 2008 IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, you can see they have linked directly to the website of the study. It’s not a few lines of background content but a whole new direction to take in one’s reading and so merit’s its own link. To me this seems like an example of best practice and, frankly, a great example what people are complaining the BBC are not doing.

It’s worth considering whether the BBC would have linked to the as many ‘background’ sources (such as the Bonobo monkey) without the Apture functionality. I don’t believe they would, and therefore the net outcome is little loss in outbound linking from stories to sites.

#2: The use of javascript to power Apture

On the BBC’s Editor’s blog, “pigsonthewing” complained:

I don’t see any in-line links – oh, wait, I have to allow javascript on your site.

I still don’t see any in-line links – oh, wait, I now have to turn on in-line links.

I still don’t see any in-line links. Oh wait, I now have to allow javascript *for an external site*

There have been a number of comments about this issue – but it has to be said mainly from ‘tech’ quarters rather than mainstream users.

I have to ask why ‘pigsonthewing’, and others, are surfing the internet without JavaScript turned on – and what kind of experience they are having on the 99.9% of sites that utilize JavaScript as part of their core functionality? (remember, most would consider Apture a secondary tier functionality – your use of the site degrades gracefully if you do not have JS switched on).

This is 2008. Back in the day there was a time when many of us geeks would turn JavaScript off due to concerns about security – however most would agree those days are gone and with browser security models what they are it is pretty safe to leave Javascript enabled – yes even for *external sites*! Gosh!

And perhaps more importantly, using the internet without JavaScript turned on is not something I think anyone would expect most ‘normal users’ to be doing.

Perhaps the only caveat to this is mobile phone browsers, however I would argue that from a usability perspective, rich functionality like Apture may not be appropriate on a small screen anyway – to this point when I created the BBC News PDA site, I stripped out the fact boxes and inline images for this reason.

This is not 2001 anymore, where we had to code for the fact that 20% of people had Javascript turned off or unavailable in their browser. According to the same source today 95% of people have JavaScript turned on. And that still includes all of the Javascript-less mobile and smartphone browsers that didn’t exist back in 2001 – the true %age for desktop browsers is going to be even higher.

It’s your right if you want to turn JavaScript off on your browser but I don’t think you can complain when sites no longer work for you. Your experience of the internet must be pretty broken and poor when every AJAX site breaks and you can not even expect basic site functionality to necessarily work.

The one other caveat for this is people who have a visual impairment, who sometimes use the Internet with JavaScript turned off. I speak from experience as I used to represent the BBC News website on the BBC Accessibility guidelines committee. However I understand that even today most screen readers and other assistive technologies have no problem with JavaScript enabled sites – and can easily interpret sites such as GMail for their user.

Conclusion and final thoughts

I take on board all of the points people have raised about Apture (as do the Apture team, I’m sure) – and there is definitely ways in which the service can and will be improved. But having worked for so many years on the BBC News Website, I’m delighted that the majority of people who gave feedback enjoyed the service and found it useful.

I believe the BBC will remove Apture at the end of the trial so that they can decide their next steps with the product. Of course I hope that the BBC will continue to work with Apture and roll out the service across the site.

In the meantime the product will of course continue to be iterated further, using as much of the feedback gained from the trial as possible (yes, even the points about JavaScript!).

If you would like to put Apture on your blog or site you can visit the Apture site for details of the free plugin. Apture is an angel-funded company and is currently seeking Series A investment.

(Disclosure: I am on the advisory board for Apture, and hold a small interest in the company. I worked for the BBC for six years, the majority of which was on the BBC News Website)

Published in News


  1. Zee from WeDoCreative Zee from WeDoCreative

    Superb Ben, I have to hand it to both the Beeb & Apture.

    The Beeb for considering new startups such as Apture, it’s undoubtedly a great tool & if the external link issue can be resolved somehow…I can’t see many downfalls.

    Apture for getting a foot in there – would be intrigued to find out how they approached the bbc with the concept.

  2. It’s an interesting debate: yes, I’ll hold my hands up and admit to being part of the ‘techie contingent’, but I’m also a firm believer in web standards.

    You mentioned the issue regards accessibility for screen readers, and degraded performance for mobiles and the like, but that I think is the problem – if standard hyperlinks were used, you wouldn’t see a degraded performance. Even if standard hyperlinks were used and were then replaced by the Apture stuff using javascript, that would be better – those with access to javascript would get the Apture stuff, those without would get it as standard hyperlinks. Is that something which could be looked at?

    For me personally, I don’t like the “pop-up-ness” of it, either. I prefer, if I want to read more information, to open the page in a new window or tab. However as I’m a techie, I’m not necessarily a ‘standard user’ here which is why this is a preference thing.

    One thing you dismiss that I think is a problem is that of security and ‘trusting external sites’. If you read a lot of security stuff (like the Sophos blog, for example), you’ll find that hacked sites tend to have external javascript links inserted in them, so the malicious code is not on the site itself but in an external location. That way, even if that site has been hacked, unless you allow code from another additional site to run, you’re still protected. This is why stuff like the noscript plugin for firefox is great: you choose which sites you want to trust on a case-by-case basis. I don’t think we should dismiss security concerns that easily…

    (oh, and as a developer, I do agree that ‘needs javascript’ isn’t necessarily ‘inaccessible’. The problem is it’s usually very difficult to find out exactly which bits of JS are and aren’t well supported by assistive tech…)

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    I’ve reading with full of interest. He’s certainly raised my awareness. This post is Well Organized and Informative for the good health. Best luck of the future. ..

  4. This debate is superb. Apture is a great tool for external links.

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