Making an on-line home for Po et al

BBC Education website producer Jem Stone created the official Teletubbies website. There were a number of unusual problems to solve in building a compelling site about the fab four.

Designed specifically for a pre-school audience who are stimulated primarily by TV, the Teletubbies exist purely to help toddlers gain the skills that are important to becoming “ready to learn”.

While they are comforting to hungover students early on a Sunday morning, these are not really the key target group. My task was to put together a website exclusively for an age group who can’t read. Many of them can’t even speak and all of them have hands smaller than a mouse. This was going to be a problem.

Teletubbies is full of large colourful characters who interact noisily with a very young audience. Music is also crucial to the programme. Nursery rhymes, dancing to songs, and Laa-Laa going “Laa-Laa” in a high-pitched whine are frequent features. They also happen to live in a colourful landscape full of giant rabbits, lions on wheels, computer-generated animal parades and magic windmills spraying pink fairy dust. Obviously, I needed to convert these aspects to the Web as accurately as possible.

If Noo-Noo didn’t slurp, if Po didn’t say “eh-oh”, if Eric Sykes didn’t say “Teletubbies” when you first set eyes upon the page then I would quickly lose an audience who has been responding enthusiastically to key aspects of the show for most of its life. The website had to look like Teletubbies and sound like Teletubbies. A patch of green and four alien babies knocked up in Photoshop in 20 minutes wasn’t going to do.

With the above point in mind and the latest research in Web page delays citing ten seconds as the cut off point before impatient adults start clicking elsewhere, there was a big problem looming. The experience of families interviewed before the website was developed had also mentioned download times and delays again and again (sorry) and singled out the attention of their under-fives as far worse than their fidgety parents. “My child hasn’t the patience to wait, he starts to fidget and wants to play on the floor,” was a typical response. Yet in order to re-create Teletubbyland perfectly inside a Web browser the two elements I needed the most were going to contribute to yawn- inducing periods. Those memory-busting graphics and memory-busting sound clips.

Trips to nursery schools and demonstrations of beta versions of the site to various offspring of colleagues revealed my last and most annoying problem. Weeks of work spent designing Tubby jigsaws and custard activities was seemingly being passed over for the far more interesting activity of closing down the screen, bringing up not the Tubby control panel but the Windows control panel.

Once the surprisingly easy task of mouse-clicking had been passed on it was open season on literally anything else on the desktop, and, more importantly, the Web. So the wrapping of the PC seemed to be a damn site more interesting than the Teletubbies website contained within. This frustration had probably led to the initial negativity in early research when parents despaired at the failure of the site when compared with CD-ROMs. “I want to leave my child alone with it while I get on with other things,” said one.

We compromised. Fears that our pre-school audience would encounter the Anarchists Cookbook by mistake, worries that they would be bored stiff waiting for “Noo-Noo tidies up” to download, and the assumption that letters from adults debating “role-shifting play” would probably not hold their interest meant that the site was redesigned.

Parents and carers became a focus and we beefed up the free off-screen content (drawings to print out and colour in, recipes for Tubby Custard). Articles on how to use the Web with your child were commissioned and we advised adults to keep children away from the screen until everything was ready – connection was established, plug-ins were working, games were functioning.

Shockwave was also used sparingly as an ideal plug-in to provide sound and on-screen interaction (an excellent simulation of the Teletubbies saying bye-bye at the end of each episode).

Finally, if the child was interested in the setting-up process, text was given a Tubby feel (use of the excellent Web-friendly font Comic Sans), and bright colourful pictures of the Tubbies adorned each and every page.

It worked. The site is one of the most popular sites in BBC history. As soon as we realised that it was about educating parents alongside their children, the design problems of download times, Web stability, and navigation solved themselves.

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