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Time is of the Essence

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Chris Yanda | 11:58 UK time, Thursday, 11 June 2009

The reason that the mobile phone has been such a success is that, basically, people are a lazy and impatient lot. They don't want to wait until they get home to call someone. They don't want to have to remember anyone's number. They just want to be able to reach into their pocket, choose the name of the person they want to talk to and call them. When building a mobile phone service, it's important to remember this. The other important thing to remember is that mobile phones are usually pretty small.

Using your eyes to scan a big display of information is very fast. Using your fingers and a hierarchy of lists to find information is less so.

For the most part, in designing a desktop web page, people focus primarily on geographic rather than temporal layout. With a screen that's 13 inches or larger, you can afford to put a bunch of content in front of the user at one time and you can count on their eyes to navigate to it.

With mobile, however, you've got a lot less real estate to deal with. You can't put everything on one screen. The simple solution is to just break apart the desktop page and stack the resulting pages in a hierarchy. This addresses the smallness issue, but now we run up against the lazy and impatient issue. Chances are many people aren't going to get past the first page of your mobile site if they don't find what they're looking for.

Fortunately, you've got more than space to play with; you've also got time. As a broadcaster, time is important to the BBC. Services like iPlayer make it a little less important, but we know that most people still watch TV programmes at the time they are scheduled.

We also know that they tend to access the mobile site for a particular show when it is on. So, when we build a site, we try to pay attention to what they might be looking for and put it in front of them. A case in point is the Eurovision site. On the night we changed the "Latest News" page. We knew that if people were accessing the site when the show was on, they would be most interested in what was happening on screen right then. We built a simple system that ensured that the first links on the page were to the country that had just performed, the one that was on now, and the next two after that.

And we added a feed of the three most recent tweets from the BBC production Twitter feed. Rather than wasting time with the timestamp of each tweet, we just put the timestamp of the most recent one.

Below this, we kept the standard content that was on the page to make sure our users could still find content they had been looking for before.

The technique worked well, and this page got by far the most traffic of any of our television support sites that night. It would have been even better if we had been able to pull in the information for the actual country that was performing at the time, but we have to balance the amount of work we do for a site and the cost of that work against the likely traffic the site will get and the value to the public.

As traffic to our mobile offering grows and thus becomes of greater value, we hope to do more work of this kind to ensure we can anticipate better what users are looking for when they are looking for it.

Chris Yanda is Portfolio Executive, Mobile



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