Usability Study: Comparing Rosetta Stone & BBC's Languages pages on BBC website


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Usability comparison between Rosetta Stone and BBC Languages pages on BBC website. Elements compared and analyzed: Content, content organization, information architecture, navigational ease. Written by a librarian (a 2004 graduate of University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign) and former college English writing teacher.

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Usability Study: Comparing Rosetta Stone & BBC's Languages pages on BBC website

  1. 1. Comparison: Rosetta Stone & BBC’s Languages pages on BBC website Gwen Williams September 11, 2007 Content: The content available on BBC Languages differs from Rosetta Stone in a fundamental way, that is, BBC has geared their website toward the tourist interested in visiting western Europe. As such, the content learned from BBC could assist the tourist in learning catch phrases that may be of use on a brief vacation in a French-, Spanish-, German-, or Italian-speaking country. BBC Languages suggests they offer other online resources for languages such as Chinese and Portuguese, but they do not. I would note BBC Languages specifically targets UK audiences, evident by the plethora of UK tutors and language courses linked throughout the site—links that are obviously not useful to persons living outside of the UK. Rosetta Stone, on the other hand, seeks to provide content that would ground the learner in learning fundamentals of a second language, which could, of course, assist the tourist, but even more, could lead beyond tourist talk toward establishing fluency with a new language. Content organization: The way the content providers organize content differs greatly. BBC orders content around stock tourist situations and appropriate phrases for such situations: some nouns, articles, and verbs are thus introduced to the learner, albeit without much explanation as to the logical structures governing gender, singular or plural, formal or informal, and verb conjugation. In other words, BBC organizes content in such a way that promotes rote memorization of useful phrases for tourists. In contrast, Rosetta Stone orders lesson content around grammatical precepts, in a progressive order (that is flexible enough for the learner to bypass various lessons should he/she so desire).
  2. 2. Information architecture: Rosetta Stone is clearly the superior resource with respect to providing an information architecture consistent with users’ mental models of learning a language and consistent with users’ mental models of online learning modules. With respect to the former, Rosetta Stone’s information architecture reflects that there is a progression for the learner of a language that moves from basic fundamentals and grammatical precepts to more complicated uses of language, or fluency. Rosetta Stone also reflects the understanding that hearing, reading, visual aids, basic writing, and speaking are all components of learning a language and that the signifier should be linked with the signified wherever possible, which Rosetta Stone achieves throughout its module by overlaying the image (le garçon) with the word (le garçon). With respect to design consistent with users’ mental models of online learning modules, Rosetta Stone provides a simple and uncluttered interface and an individual account mechanism, and integrates a variety of media corresponding to a variety of learning styles. On the other hand, the information architecture of BBC Languages lacks consistency with users’ mental models of learning a language (mainly the organizing principle geared toward the tourist) and lacks consistency with users’ mental models of online learning modules. For instance, the user is never entirely within the BBC Languages module as such, he/she is merely presented with a series of programmed presentations structured around tourist situations in pop-up windows, evident by the fact that the “home” button always visible refers to the BBC domain name home, not the BBC Languages home. Always at the ready for the user of BBC Languages is a mass of links to other pages in the BBC Languages subdirectory, other BBC subdirectories, or non-BBC websites: while potentially useful pointers to other resources (most especially for persons living in the UK), overall this hyper hyper-linking structure does not a learning resource module make—if it did, then search engine display results would constitute a learning resource module and even more so in that search engine results are displayed on the fly with the most current information available, not embedded at some point in the past (four hours ago, three months ago, two years ago?) within web pages. BBC Languages certainly displays consistency
  3. 3. with respect to many users’ mental models of poor and cluttered website design built by a vanguard from the print world slow to understand the current technological milieu. That is, the BBC Languages portion of their website suffers the same malady that BBC’s website in the main does: it’s a mess based on outdated, cumbersome conceptions of electronic media exchange. Navigation: BBC Languages differs greatly from Rosetta Stone with respect to ease of navigation. Whereas Rosetta Stone minimizes the options available for the user to navigate (thus, marking the navigation possibilities clearly for the user), BBC maximizes the number of links away from the content within BBC Languages proper toward the content of BBC’s main business as creator and supplier of news in various formats and in various languages. This choice by BBC certainly makes sense—BBC is not, after all, in the business of teaching people new languages— however, the user attempting to navigate through the links BBC provides could easily become waylaid by the number of pop-up windows, idiosyncratic use of fonts/colors/automated navigating devices, and absence of sufficient breadcrumbs, to name a few poor design decisions by the BBC. In short, whereas the navigation through the self-contained Rosetta Stone is consistent, clear, and rational, the navigation through BBC Languages is confusing, difficult and tedious, and could cause many users to simply abandon the program and google for a different online free language learning course—of which there appears to be an abundance of such sites for specific languages and for tourists wishing to get something for free. Ironically, the generation of users—Gen X and Y—most able to navigate such a layout with ease is perhaps the generation of users most likely to abandon such a site because of its outdated and cumbersome approach to building multimedia learning resources; and the generation of users who would perhaps be most interested in the content of this resource— the baby boomer and pre-baby boomer tourist classes—as a broad group tends to lack fundamental information literacy skills necessary to navigate seamlessly through the link-it-and-all-will-be-well BBC design. Even for the ideal user of this resource, I wonder if mastering the content (learning a few stock tourist phrases) would be worth the navigational bother.
  4. 4. Sum: BBC Languages hardly compares with Rosetta Stone’s product: they were built for different reasons and are going after different market segments. Even though BCL certainly serves the tourist wishing to learn a few key phrases to unleash during his/her trip abroad, I would not recommend BCL link to the BBC Languages website because of the organizational principles used in constructing it, principles that led to the questionable quality of its information architecture and navigational features. In short, there are major usability issues with the BBC Languages website.