Ceefax predicts mobile web: Jakob Neilsen declares BBC world’s best headline writers

By Matt Cornock

The latest article by Jakob Nielsen, the living legend of usability who publishes regularly on a web developers’ treasure trove and graphic designers’ nightmare of a website, declares the BBC News website as the epitome of great web writing. This is true, and a well established fact, that the headline writers at the BBC succinctly encapsulate a story in such clarity in the space of four words that viewing their RSS feed you never need to read a newspaper again (sort of). What I found more interesting though was the off hand reference to Ceefax as the historical evidence that the BBC has always been good at writing effectively and efficiently.

Ceefax, for those who don’t remember TVs that used to shoot electrons in your general direction, was an information service carried in the ‘spare bit’ of analogue tv signal. ITV offered Oracle, commonly known now as Teletext. To find out more about this read the Wikipedia article and the BBC’s 30th anniversary article. Ceefax comprised of text and very basic graphics which were formed using text characters like pipes and blocks using (I think) 8 colours: black, white, dark blue, light blue, yellow, red, green, purple. The real estate on screen was minimal, only a handful of words per page. Each page would take what seemed an age to load as pages were on rotation within the hidden portion of the signal and you had to wait until the page number you requested matched the page being broadcast. In addition, sub-pages would rotate too and you’d wait til the right one came up before you whacked the ‘hold’ button on the remote freezing the page you wanted so you had enough time to read it. Interactivity came by using the four ‘fastext’ buttons and using the ‘reveal’ button.

Nielsen makes the point that Ceefax has low definition and measly word count, and makes the remark it is like the mobile web.

The mobile web (web delivered through mobile phones – not through computers like netbooks), although it does offer more sophisticated graphics and is certainly more two-way interactive, does require many content traits that made Ceefax/Teletext so successful:

  1. The delivery is slow: users need to be rewarded with good content as a result.
  2. The first part of the content must be the most relevant. This is not a book or film where the best bits are kept to the end. The headline must convey the message and encourage the user to click it/go to that page or read on.
  3. Content must be precise, clear and without waffle. Both screen real estate and user patience are at a minimum on both these devices. The facts are wanted quickly and efficiently.

What is interesting though, is that whilst headlines on the normal web are designed to appeal to the ‘scanning’ reader, the headlines of Ceefax (and hence mobile web) are actually required to be for the thorough reader. Here are my reasons:

  1. The user would only use this mechanism if the information they require is worth the effort. The information must then be thoroughly read to obtain maximum value from it.
  2. Ceefax pages didn’t compete for attention, you can’t operate the system quickly enough to do what most web sites need to avoid: the click bounce (deciding whether a page is relevant in 4 seconds).
  3. The headlines were short through both technical limitations and to appeal to the tabloid culture that was starting to flourish in paper media.

Whilst Ceefax will be retired in the analogue switch off, its digital (red button) counter-part remains. Mobile web has yet to take off to the same degree, and will probably be superceeded by the success of netbooks and wireless networking via mobile networks. One guess at this would be that the mobile web was trying to be too much like the normal web, where it actually needed to be like Ceefax. However, in the age where information demand is so great and people never feel they get what they want quick enough, perhaps the sluggishness of the mobile web is the next obstacle to overcome.

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