Update 2: Radio Pop is now live! Read more here
Update: You might be reading this post because of the Olinda radio. Unfortunately we've had to take down the demo of Radio Pop because it wasn't scaling. The good news is that we've been re-building it and it should be ready for launch very soon.
Allow me to introduce the latest prototype from Audio & Music Interactive and the R&D team...
Radio Pop enhances your radio listening. Enabling you to create a personal record or the programmes you like, and see what your friends and everyone else is listening to.
So if you want to tap into your amigos, let your pulse spread the good vibrations, and feel the buzz from the crowd - register for Radio Pop. The radio service of tomorrow, today!
In this post I'm going to tell the story of how we developed Radio Pop - the idea and the prototype - and where it could go next.
BBC Audio & Music Interactive, and bbc.co.uk, has generally focused on quite ‘heavy’ interaction. Things that require a bit of a commitment and effort on behalf of the user, things like tagging, messageboards, comments and submitting content.
At the other side of the spectrum we wanted to look at doing something ‘lighter’ and more implicit. The BBC does some things like this - rating on the BBC Film Network and simple yes/no votes on the BBC Action Network. Something that didn't really require the user to do anything much extra - maybe tracking activity around our site or creating an Amazon-like "Page You Made". And while we were doing that maybe trying to show radio's sense of liveness and community on the web. To emphasise how powerful light-touch participation can be it is worth thinking about the supermarket loyalty card. Just by tracking what we buy supermarkets can use that data in many powerful ways. What might a BBC loyalty card be like?
It worked like all our projects this year, we took the theme of light user interaction and ran with it. Brainstorming and forming ideas for the first week or so before prototyping something in the remaining time, approximately 6 weeks. As usual, I begged and borrowed a team from around the department. We ended up with a team of 8, unfortunately not all at the same time, so this is my attempt to visualise the team over the 6 weeks.
The team featured...
Yasser Rashid and Sean McVeigh on the design.
Nick Brownlow, Tyrone Samuels and Matt Harvey worked on the idea, its development, the language used and generally helped out. I've also borrowed some of Matt's and Yasser's parts of the final presentation here.
Sacha Sedriks stepped in at the end to help with the Flash.
And I ran the project and learned a bit of ActionScript to build the Flash graphs and charts.
We started by looking at how the user might interact with radio listening and used an OS X widget as a starting point. Widgets, small self-contained applications that are focussed on one task, were particularly practical for us because we could link to the live BBC radio streams for listening but they are quite personal - sitting on a user's desktop - and allow interaction.
We looked at something that had two means of participating, what we called "lean forward" and "lean back". Lean back participation is something which takes place without you having to do something actively, it is implicit and your actions imply a form of choice (eg. if you spend an hour each day looking at business news, it's fair to assume that you are interested in business news). Secondly, more explicit, lean-forward interaction involves some active participation, from something as simple as 'expressing your love' for a track on last.fm, to leaving an album comment on a review. In the case of the widget pressing the “hit” button shows your expression of interest in the current programme or track.
And from that really simple implicit and explicit interaction data we could build many products and services. Diaries of what you’ve listened to, ownership and downloads of your listening history, personal and community data, visualisation of the data and instant feedback all over the web.
To enable these ideas we started work on the Presence Engine - a platform to store information about what radio programmes people are listening to - their "attention data".
Inputs to Radio Pop could include the Radio Player, radio listening widgets, Facebook radio players or even digital and wifi radios. I've divided the possible outputs from Radio Pop into two sections. The presentation of your personal data; member pages, widgets for blogs and items in your Facebook minifeed. And the presentation of public, anonymous, mass data; how many people are listening on Radio Player, aggregate charts and graphs, most popular programmes on a radio station etc.
We defined APIs for input and output, this enables the BBC, third parties and even users to build new ways to input data and new representations of the data. And this helps make Radio Pop loosely-coupled and part of the web of data. The event data (i.e. when a user starts or stops listening) is provided in Atom and in a custom XML format and all the aggregate statistics data is also custom XML - there's more information on the API page. If we develop this further I'd look at implementing support for some standard attention data formats like APML, the Attention Profiling Markup Language. The data is currently restricted to live listening and stores events for people when they start listening, stop listening, continue listening (a "pulse") and when they express interest. All events are time-stamped and associated with a radio network so we can link them to what show was on or what track was playing at the time. All the data is made public by default but can be made private, though obviously that restricts what can be done with the data (no RSS feeds or widgets for example). The database includes a model of “friends” so users can see their friends' listening habits, individually and in aggregate. It was all built by Chris using Rails and runs on Amazon EC2 servers.
Meanwhile Yasser and Sean were looking at how to communicate and visualise the idea. They started by looking at a widget for tracking your listening. Tyrone built up a mood board for a BBC 1Xtra widget and Sean turned this into some original thoughts of how the widget may look. They then turned to developing a language to talk about the system and the actions. Starting with “agora”, a Greek meeting place, they looked at related words, “voxpop”, “diary” and “rendezvouz” before turning to describe the aspects of the service. This led to a vocabulary around pop, bubbles, buzz, hum, pulse and tap and also inspired an initial visual language using circles and bubbles. A key aspect of this was the use of the word "pop" for the action of showing interest in a programme or track and "Radio Pop" to describe the whole site.
This was an initial sketch of part of the interface - live listening statistics for a radio station that animate as you drag the timeline at the bottom. At this point we also decided to incorporate the new BBC radio station logos which have started to be rolled out across the BBC radio websites. They are clean, simple, circular designs that work really well, for example, as bold, simple barcharts and fitted well into the bubble aesthetic. Next up was the site design and structure, based around the language we’d identified. A "you" page showing your data. A "tap" page, letting you tap into your friends’ listening. A "buzz" page showing everybodys’ data and a "pulse" page for downloading the widgets and applications that contribute to the pulse of data in the system.
This is the homepage which you see if you’re not signed in. The Flash animation at the top shows some statistics from all the users of Radio Pop - the size of the logo is relative to the number of listeners to that network. See how the new logos really work well here?
Having signed in you’re taken to the You page. This is where all the statistics and data we've collected come into their own. A stacked bar chart along the top shows your listening by network for the past week. The overlaid and scaled logos show the same data in a more abstract way. Below this are your most listened to radio programmes, since you registered, and your most listened to networks. Finally there’s a panel showing your most recent “popped” items - remember that's things you particularly liked or wanted to bookmark. You can also go to a page to manage your listening data and subscribe to an RSS feed of your recent events.
From your page you can move on to see the collective data from all your friends in Tap. This shows identical charts but this time based on your friends’ listening data. This page also allows you to manage your friends, adding or removing them. Finally there is the Buzz page showing the collective data for all the users of Radio Pop. In the time we had we weren’t able to integrate Radio Player listening directly into the prototype. Instead there is a Radio page where you can listen to Radio Player live streams while posting attention data and popping the interesting bits.
The Pulse page provides a number of widgets to be downloaded. There is a 1Xtra OS X widget for listening to 1Xtra (including the station's LiveText, a first for our widgets I think). Chris also developed a blog badge which you can embed in your blog, MySpace or other web page that displays in real-time what you are currently listening to. Here's mine (though it won't show anything unless I'm listening right now)...
In our department we've had a really good response to this, I guess this is partly because everyone can see how it is relevant to their bit of BBC radio, but also I suspect it's because it appeals to the inner geek in us all. Whether Radio Pop, or a similar concept, would appeal to the listening public remains to be seen. I suspect it's of more relevance to stations like Radio 4 where the variety of programmes may make it interesting for listeners to see their history. Though it may work well for the bookmarking of "loved" songs on the music stations - a bit like a cut-down version of Phone Tags, which was an internal prototype from my predecessors Matt and Tom a few years ago. In fact we didn't get round to implementing Mobile Pop - register your mobile number and then text “pop” to the network SMS number. “Popping” programmes acts as a kind of social bookmarking for radio programmes, a bit like del.icio.us, it could be very powerful in a future of long-tail audio content. A way of bringing to the fore current and archive programmes that you want to share with your friends and the wider world.
The major hurdle to implementing something like this for real on the BBC site (you'll notice that are prototype is not on bbc.co.uk) is that listeners need to be signed in while listening to the radio. Ideally this would be through the Radio Player, eventually followed by iPlayer. But, like I said, we didn't get time to implement anything using the Radio Player and to be honest that would be a big piece of work (you don't want to know!). And we’ve only tacked live listening but listen again should be easy enough as long as we know what programme is being listened to. Scalability is also an issue as it’s potentially a very large amount of data. The prototype has been build in a loosely-coupled and modular fashion so the APIs allow us and other parties to easily extend Radio Pop. The Flash charts, for example, could be plugged into many other pages, on or off bbc.co.uk.
We've had some thoughts around privacy - users should have control over who sees their data and be able to delete it or download it and take it elsewhere. Maybe even share it with other services like last.fm or Amazon, this is where sites and services like the Attention Trust, APML and Plaxo's Pulse are heading. Radio Pop is just one way to approach light-touch user participation and create a really simple way to engage the audience without expecting them to do much apart from listen to the radio. Throughout the project we have been thinking of Radio Pop as an enabler with potential halos of effect around it...
On bbc.co.uk - Radio Player, iPlayer, member pages, /radio...
On the internet - RSS feeds, blog badges, Facebook applications...
And in the real world - DAB radios, wi-fi radios, mobile phones...