BBC Philharmonic Notes app – right idea, wrong execution


A couple of weeks ago I went to the launch concert of the BBC Philharmonic’s live concert programme app called “Notes”. Well, technically it’s not an app… it’s a web app that you look at on your browser, but more on that later.


The idea of using smartphones in performances for concert programmes isn’t new, with the Royal Philharmonic (RPO) starting to use them in 2017, and both the London Symphony Orchestra (LSO) and my orchestra Yorkshire Young Sinfonia (YYS) in 2018. All 3 orchestras have used the EnCue app. However, the BBC Phil will be the first orchestra to use them in all of their main season (at Bridgewater Hall) and as far as I know the only one to specifically develop their own app.


Time for a full disclaimer. As you may have guessed that my orchestra has used a concert programme app before, I am a HUGE fan of technology in concerts and I’m already bought in to the idea of concert programme apps. If I had my way, we’d all be on phones in concerts and using social media.



So, what was the app like to use? We’ll start with the good…


There was a simple link to put into your browser, or a QR code to get to the programme notes that was quickly loaded (although I don’t know anyone who actually scans QR codes, it’s good to have the option). Plain black background and clear white text made it easy to read without being invasive. On top of that, there was a nice subtle transition animation that would softly flash when the next piece of content came on. 


In terms of content, I think the BBC Philharmonic were experimenting with different styles. The first and third pieces used shorter and simpler bits of content which really added to the experience, at times pointing out what was about to happen and where to look, with the two people who I was sat next to really enjoying. The second piece had longer more academic text that for me was too much to take in, but wasn’t necessarily a bad thing.


No one seemed to complain about phones being distracting, and the app ran smoothly and was always in sync.



Right… time for the bad… and there’s lot of bad…


I’ve had some time to think about the experience and have narrowed down my issues into two categories, presentation and platform (with platform being a serious issue).


Presentation – how the audience find out about the app and sold to them. I’m not entirely sure how many people at the concert were aware of the app being launched or what it was, so how it was announced through flyers, paper programmes and speeches was really important.



For the flyers and paper programmes we were given, the URL for the app was far too small to be obvious, with the paper programme having it hidden in the middle of normal text – no bigger font, no bold. There was free WIFI, but again the log in details were really hard to see. Ideally, you’d have the most important bits of information, where to find the app and how on earth to get internet, displayed really clearly so you can see them at a glance. On a personal note I’d love some information as to what to expect in the app, but that’s by the by.


There was also a mini talk before the concert on how to find the app, how to get WIFI, as well as what to expect from the app and why they are using it. Genuinely a great idea, however, the orchestra continued to warm up and play over the speech so you could barely hear anything. It does seem a bit ridiculous that a pro orchestra can’t be quiet for 3 minutes while someone is talking to an audience. 


For the Bridgewater season, there will be designated areas for phone users to use Notes and not distract other concert goers. Personally, I hate this idea. It creates an “us” and “them” dynamic. Also, I find a small silent black screen with white text significantly less distracting that someone loudly thumbing their way through a big brightly coloured paper programme, so why wouldn’t you let them sit with everyone else?


The good news is that all of these presentation things can easily be fixed before the main Bridgewater season starts.



Now, for where the big issues start to come in… the platfrom…

BBC Phil alongside the BBC Research and Development teams decided to develop a web app, so you visit a web page on the browser on your phone, rather than specific app you download for your phone. The main reason for this is that if concerts are educational, young people may not have permissions on their phones from the bill payer to download apps, so by putting Notes on a browser means it’s accessible to all. It also means you don’t have to download anything.


A mini issue with this is that they are launching Notes for their main concert season, rather than educational concerts, so this probably wouldn’t be an issue. However, I understand thinking of how they want to use the technology in the future, and looking towards this is probably a good thing.



The issues in using a web browser are significantly bigger than just this though. Both myself and the two people I was sat with had issues with Notes not always quite fitting the screen correctly within the browser and looking a bit clunky – this was on both Apple and Android.


I also couldn’t get the address and toolbar of my browser to disappear, making the overall look a bit ugly. I was constantly reminded I was on the internet, rather than having a good, subtle user interface and positive experience. There are probably ways of fixing this on my phone, but as someone who is pretty tech savvy, I felt that if I couldn’t sort this, others would struggle more.


On top of that, the flyer helpfully told me the “tip” of deactivating my “screen-time out” so I didn’t miss any notes, as well as adjusting the screen brightness. This is too much of a faff and totally gets in the way of the user experience. Screen brightness is a bit nuisance, but having to change big settings on the phone like the screen-time out, which you may forget about later post-concert and cause your to run out of battery is seriously infuriating and means audience members will probably spend 5 minutes before the concert swearing at the settings on the phone. If this was an actual phone app, there would be no need to change this as it can be added in the development stage and means users don’t have to do anything. The EnCue app the RPO, LSO and YYS use has this feature built in, and on top of that has an easily accessible slider in the app itself to change the brightness.


Like being able to change the brightness within Notes, using a web browser prevents having other really useful features. Going back to EnCue again, there’s the option to change the text size to your own preference. In addition, with EnCue, you can flick back to see something really interesting from before, go over the notes at the interval, or see what’s coming up next. There’s then a simple clear button to sync back to the performance so you’re not left guessing where you are. Sadly, with Notes you are stuck to seeing the current slide.


With EnCue, you also get the option of sharing slides to social media, telling others about your experience and thoughts - again missing from Notes.


However, my favourite feature of EnCue that is missing from Notes is the ability to keep and collect your digital concert programme notes for you to look at on the way home, or longer out of curiosity, or if we’re going with education work, for you to look back at when you get into the classroom.


The EnCue app totally outshines its BBC equivalent, to a point where it’s hard to imagine that EnCue was researched when developing Notes. 


With almost no features and the clunkiness of a web browser, it got me thinking as to what the BBC Philharmonic and BBC Research and Development teams have actually created. In essence, what they have made is a presentation broadcasting platform (bear with me on this). Someone creates slides with text on, that when it is “presented” is also visible to anyone with a website link. 


In effect, BBC Notes is a live PowerPoint presentation that you can see on a web browser.


Now, live presentation sharing is nothing new in the tech or business world. Lots of conferences now have the option of following along to speakers presentations on your phone, saving them for later, and even interacting with live polls etc.. Just look at SlideDog and Zoho for some options with so many more features than BBC Notes.


What is the most infuriating part of BBC Notes being in effect a live PowerPoint presentation sharer for web browsers with no extra features, that there is already a free way to do this…




So with the Notes app, the BBC Philharmonic and BBC Research and Development teams have spent months, and probably a fair bit of money creating something that you and I have been able do for free in an afternoon on Microsoft PowerPoint for the last 9 years…


Ultimately, it got me thinking… what was the point of it?

ThoughtsDavid Taylor