The multichannel user experience of 'A History of the World'

by Philip Webb on 12 October 2012

One approach to using multiple channels as an organisation is to do everything you do through every channel  available. For example, as a retailer, you might sell products via web (desktop), mobile (website and app), tablet, at the store etc.

A more sophisticated approach is to tailor specific types of content and deliver these types of content through specific channels in order to increase the sales as a whole for the organisation. For example, Boots use YouTube to offer customers tips about make-up and Topshop use Facebook to showcase fashion trends together with their latest lines. Neither of these social media channels directly drives sales, yet both retailers are offering content that customers are likely to value as a way of learning more about their products. The point is the content aligns with customer behaviour and desires in a way that is likely to enhance the brand in general, and more importantly encourage sales through different channels. The channels chosen are the best ones to deliver these types of content – YouTube for video, Facebook for timely updates.

In retail the imperative to increase sales can at least provide an exacting focus for the alignment of content and channels. But how do you work out which content should be delivered through which channel in a domain that doesn’t involve sales where the content is the offering and the offering is free? The lack of constraints makes it hard because so many options are available – do you present the content as text, audio, visual, or a combination? Which channels do you use – mobile app, tablet app, podcast, physical book, or all of these?

A History Of The World In 100 Objects is a collaboration between the British Museum and the BBC and a great example of an multichannel solution to deliver content.

On the face of it, an attempt to tell an entire history of mankind spanning 2 million years through a manageable set of 100 objects held in 1 museum seems impossibly ambitious. However, the limits posed by such an undertaking have both helped define what the content should be and the channels it should therefore be delivered through.

The content

Without considering channels for now, let’s just look purely at the content. The choice of the content and the way it’s structured scales effortlessly up and down – each object equates to one 15-minute radio programme, 5 objects to a theme e.g. Inside the Palace: Secrets at Court (700 – 900 AD), 20 themes in rough chronological order from early man to the present day. The trick is in choosing the 100 objects to illustrate the broad social and economic changes happening worldwide – a task that draws on the skill and knowledge of teams of curators and Neil MacGregor, director of the British Museum.

The beauty of it is you can dip into 1 object at random or plough through all 100. It’s up to you. Every programme makes sense as a standalone bite-size piece of content. However, if you take the trouble to follow them in order, each programme and theme builds upon previous content. Even the consistent format of each 15-minute programme (with contributions from guest experts and commentators) helps make multiple programmes more digestible.

In short, the content is designed. And it’s designed very carefully with user needs in mind. A 2-million-year history is a daunting thing to consume, so the creators have done their best to allow consumers to choose which level of commitment suits them.

It would seem that justice can only be done to content about the historical significance of beautiful and priceless things via video rather than audio. But the project partnership chose radio, not television. However, given that the entire content lasts for 25 hours, radio is actually the perfect choice. People have to commit all their attention to the passive experience of television, whereas it’s much easier to combine radio with something else like a commuter journey or cooking. Also, Neil MacGregor explains that history programmes on TV are too often “a rather large number of quite expensive rearrangements of medieval battles and lovingly rendered shots of brass rubbings”, and radio is better able to explain the cultural, political and economic history of an object. Besides, there is something great about listening to the presenter’s description blind and recreating the object in your mind.

So, the core content is audio (initially 100 scheduled radio episodes). And all the other content is peripheral in that it’s complementary to the core, and optional. The peripheral content is delivered in multiple forms and channels: web (text, still pictures, podcast, streaming), CD box set, physical book, and an actual visit to the British Museum. The project is further enriched with innovative spin-off broadcast content such as the CBBC series, Relic: Guardians of the Museum, and regional variations such as a Welsh version featuring 50 objects from Wales.

What truly makes A History Of The World In 100 Objects work is the way consumers can pick and choose the peripheral content to enhance the experience.

The channels

The web provides flexibility – a way to explore the wealth of content in surprising and useful ways. The visual browsing tool on the BBC site offers a kind of 3D time-travel simulation and intuitive filters such as material, culture and size to examine the collection from a multitude of angles.

The BBC site also provides zoomable images, extra written content (not just a transcript of the audio) that perfectly complements the radio programmes. There’s even content contributed by members of the public nominating their own objects to the collection.

There many different ways to explore the collection as a brief skim which works particularly well on the web: object of the day, highlight lists, celebrity choices and a 5-minute video montage that provides an introduction to the whole collection.

Of course, the content also lends itself to offline formats such as the book and CD box set. But the most compelling opportunity for combining online and offline channels is to show visitors to the British Museum where the objects are on display. Unfortunately, this experience is poor. The British Museum website isn’t optimised for mobile and the floor plan map is hard to use with numbered rooms competing for numbered objects.

The user experience

The user experience isn’t perfect. The web experience can be fragmented and confusing because content is hosted and to some extent repeated over 2 main sites: BBC and British Museum. The experience suffers from the lack of a single point of entry built around a single searchable browseable list of the objects. For example you have to search in two different places to view an object and listen to the accompanying programme. It’s quite hard to search for specific objects and the search results are sometimes unreliable. The mobile experience is poor. A mobile app that makes use of geolocation to guide you to objects would be perfect, but even just tagging the object content as being available to visit in the museum would be an inexpensive improvement on the current experience.

However, the overall experience of the content across many channels is rich and compelling. The original motivation for the project was to encourage more people to take an interest in history and visit museums, and I think the multichannel experience is likely to achieve that. 30 million downloads of the radio series certainly demonstrates appetite for the content.


The design of a successful multichannel experience to deliver content relies on two main things:

  • The design of content – how it should be chunked, what form it should take e.g. text, image, audio, video
  • The design of the delivery of that content across different channels

Compelling user experiences often involve a clever combination of channels e.g. an intelligent mobile guide to objects during a museum visit. A coherent multichannel approach can be achieved by choosing what the core content is and what peripheral content can usefully complement that core content. An appreciation of the strengths different channels and content forms can offer is also vital. Ultimately though, the solution will only work if it’s based on user needs, behaviour and expectations. Design questions like ‘Are users likely to prefer 25 hours of content as video or audio?’ and ‘Does it matter that radio listeners can’t necessarily see the object?’ can only be answered by carrying some kind of user research.

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