Simplicity is the key to the BBC's new Electronic News Production System. By Mel Martin
"We bought this wonderful system, but, two years later, it's useless." How often do we hear this complaint after software or computers are installed?

The problems often relate to software design. Was the on-screen interface integral to the project, or an afterthought?

In designing the screens for the new Electronic News Production System, the BBC gave the matter a great deal of thought. Its system, designed in partnership with the Associated Press, promises users a rich but uncomplicated experience.

Our first step was to listen to users. In a world where data updates several times a minute, the challenge is not collecting information but managing it. In newsrooms, journalists need to know where things are: a piece of agency material, a phone contact, a script transmitted several weeks ago. The system had to be easy to operate, and we designed an interface that relied on a simple drag-and-drop metaphor. You take the object on screen, be it text, a sound clip or video, and drag it to a window to view, or to a mailbox to send, or to folders that become destinations. The normal operating system interface is invisible, and users find the concepts easy to understand.

We use a technique called indexing to keep track of all incoming material - every word. It turns the usual way a computer system is used on its end. Instead of the user having to know where something is, the system keeps track. All users need to know is what they want, without having to know where it is. The system finds it in a few seconds.

The software runs on an Apple Mac, Windows 95, or Windows 3.11. It looks the same on each computer, and works the same way, allowing machines that may have other specialised applications to use ours as well.

People can learn most of it in well under an hour, so support costs drop dramatically. And because we control the user interface, we're not captive to a changing market which has to deal with different training for different platforms.

No computer system can change the way people work unless they want to, but an elegant, well-designed system can ease that change and even make using it enjoyable.

The author is project director of the Electronic News Production System.