BBC Connected Studio Interview

As part of BBC Research and Development, BBC Connected Studio inspires, facilitates and delivers innovative digital experiences through collaboration within the organisation and the creative industry. We spoke to some of the key figures in the project to find out more about how their initiative is helping digital creatives both within and outside the corporation to turn their ideas into a reality.

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Robin Cramp – Market Engagement Manager

Contributors

  • Robin Cramp – Market Engagement Manager
  • Chris Ambrose – Assistant Producer
  • Rebecca Gregory-Clarke – Research Engineer
  • Simon Lumb – Senior Product Manager

What is BBC Connected Studio?

Robin

BBC Connected Studio focuses on short-to-mid-term innovation, using audience research and market insights to develop briefs around digital content. Internal team members and external agencies can submit proposals, with ideas that meet the selection criteria having the chance to receive funding to be developed into pilots, with support and creative and technical expertise from Connected Studio.

Pilots are hosted on our public-facing test platform, BBC Taster, where audiences are invited to try, rate and share the pilots, allowing us to gather feedback and insight that could lead to them being developed for wider use across the organisation.

How did you become involved with the project?

Robin

Personally, I joined the BBC specifically to work on Connected Studio. I have a keen interest in emerging ideas through previous roles. When the BBC launched Connected Studio as an innovation venture in 2012 I wanted to be part of it. I joined the team as a project manager to oversee the development process of the ideas with various teams. This evolved into my current role, which involves hosting our events and managing our engagement with external partners.

"Creative ideas are only one element of a project or pilot. Executing those ideas will always require digital coding skills."

Tell us about some of the most successful or exciting projects BBC Connected Studio has been involved with...

Chris

One of the most interesting elements of our work at Connected Studio is the sheer range of ideas we get to work on. Letting people loose on a brief and watching the creativity flow is inspiring to see; seeing ideas get turned into functioning pilots in a relatively short amount of time is very rewarding.

We worked with the BBC TV show Casualty on a short-form video pilot(‘Casualty: First Day’) which puts the viewer at the heart of an interactive online episode as the lead character, and forces them to make serious (and sometimes quite graphic!) decisions as a new doctor. Aside from the strong editorial input, the high production values and the compelling integration of interactive video technologies that were a feature of this pilot, it was great to be working with a large and widely recognised television brand, as it can be a challenge to convince traditional linear production teams to try something more experimental like this, especially when they have such hectic schedules with their day to day requirements. They were really enthusiastic though, so much so that we’re working with them on another project, which is one of the strongest indications of success.

Another pilot, ‘Your Story’, uses BBC Archive content to create a personalised journey through a user’s lifetime after they’ve submitted their birth date. This was successful in different ways, as not only was it one of the first to launch on BBC Taster (and in fact managed to briefly break the site with its popularity), but also through its use of BBC Archive content in a new and compelling format that added a new dimension to how our users could relate to them.

It was also successful in the sense that it has been developed further, with new editions launching that include other languages to broaden the reach and interest in the experience.

BBC Minute CatchUP has been another compelling pilot to work on, as it has been devised and built by a digital agency in Cape Town, South Africa, as part of our first international programme of work. The pilot is an audio player that has been built to feature 60 second news bulletins that update every half an hour, and can be hosted on external websites. Although technically simple to create, it has huge potential for increasing international audiences as it provides easy access to BBC content that is already being produced, and in a flexible and easily-digestible format.

What are some of the biggest challenges you’ve faced?

Robin

Doing new things in new ways within a large organisation like the BBC has its own challenges. Connected Studio evolved from previous development programmes and lessons learned along the way – from the way we work with partners to delivering innovation in a more scalable way.

In doing this we found we were taking the entire BBC on a journey of change – helping the corporation to adapt to the Connected Studio creative processes and to engage with the external digital community to help envisage ideas for development. Four years on, we’re an established team delivering innovation at scale – so it would seem that the challenges are paying off...

How important are digital skills such as coding and computer programming to delivering innovative new platforms and experiences?

Robin

Super important. Creative ideas are only one element of a project or pilot. Executing those ideas will always require digital coding skills. We want to keep pushing the boundaries of innovation, and that means embracing new tools and finding people with the right skills to implement them.

BBC Connected

Do you find that there’s a significant disconnect between the creatives who write and produce the content we digest through the BBC, and the technical experts who help to deliver it? Is this a gap that needs to be closed?

Becky

Traditionally yes. ‘creatives’ were seen as people who came up with ideas while technologists had a more enabling role, and in some cases this still persists. But more and more we are seeing creatives with a much greater understanding of technical possibilities, and innovative technologists who have the skills to create the experiences as well as deliver them.

We would even go further and say that the very best projects not only embrace this mixture of creative and technical skills within people, but actively use it to their advantage. These projects tend to run more efficiently as there is less back and forth between the two camps, and we get more out of them creatively as the different points of view can push each other in new directions.

"One of the core principles of the BBC is to educate. As a corporation we run a number of initiatives aimed at addressing the shortage of digital skills in the UK."

Do you think we do enough to support digital skills and innovation in the UK? How does the BBC contribute to this?

Robin

One of the core principles of the BBC is to educate. As a corporation we run a number of initiatives aimed at addressing the shortage of digital skills in the UK. One such initiative is Make It Digital, which aims to inspire a new generation to get creative with coding, programming and digital technology. Part of this wider venture includes the micro:bit, which will see 1 million devices given to year 7 pupils across the UK in 2016, with in-class tuition to enhance the effectiveness of coding in education.

What sort of digital tools and platforms do you work with in your projects?

Simon

At Connected Studio, we’ll often look at emerging audience behaviours and try to identify certain themes that merit investigation. This might be something like interactive or online video. Rather than the BBC devoting time and resources to developing internal capability and technology, we like to look to the marketplace to see if there are tools or platforms already out there that would allow us to rapidly test ideas with audiences. It’s clear that when it comes to innovation at scale, partnerships and tooling can help many more good ideas to go from concept to reality.

The tools we work with are selected for their different styles of interactivity and potential to generate a wide range of content types – from interactive interviews to multiple camera angles and behind-the-scenes access to exclusive gigs, major drama, natural history, arts content and more. By utilising these tools, we can provide new angles and enhanced interactivity for a fraction of the cost of bespoke works.

"At Connected Studio we purposely make all of our engagement inclusive regardless of geographical location, with events, briefings and activities across England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland."

The UK digital market is sometimes accused of being too London-centric. Do you think this is true? If so, how can businesses, the government and initiatives like BBC Connected help to address this?

Robin

London is always used as a comparison for many areas of business being too skewed to the South, and digital is no different. At Connected Studio we purposely make all of our engagement inclusive regardless of geographical location, engaging with a varied mix of companies all over the UK and holding events, briefings and activities across England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

We’ve also seen recent initiatives focus on hothousing the digital and technology sector through the government supported Tech North - the Northern counterpart of Tech City reaching across the West to East corridor and championing the 7 cities - Liverpool, Manchester, Sheffield, Leeds, Hull, Sunderland & Newcastle.

Finally, are there any particular innovations you’d like to see in the digital space in the next few years?

Robin

When it comes to working with digital innovation, we are very thankful to have a large number of skilled independent developers and the freedom to experiment with new partners and platforms to test ideas for future content with our audiences. We have the gift to be able to seek focus on emerging trends that have significant value for the BBC to continue to innovate the way it tells stories.

We expect to see significant advancements in Virtual Reality over the next few years, particularly in terms of general consumption. Whether you’ll need to strap on a headset to experience it in the mainstream remains to be seen, but we’re definitely going to see some interesting developments in this area.