BBC News on mobile: responsive design
The BBC News mobile site responsively adapts to a tablet
As Head of Product I am responsible for the way in which we deliver BBC News to people on desktop computers, mobile phones, tablet devices and televisions connected to the internet or red button, the four screens of our BBC Online strategy.
If you're one of the large and rapidly growing number of people who use BBC News Online on more than one digital device, you’re likely to start noticing some changes in the next few weeks and months.
In particular, the minority of users who still use the mobile web browser version of our product will see it change, and I’ll explain how that is part of a wider “under the bonnet” project which will ultimately benefit the News Online product as a whole, on all screens.
Now please don't get me wrong. People using that mobile browser site are still a sizeable and significant minority (and I include myself in those numbers). However it is from an age before the modern mobile phones that many of us have, and the changes will replace it with a site which is easier to use on a touch screen device.
Kate Milner from my team has written about these changes, while my editorial colleague Steve Herrmann has also blogged.
We believe this is one of the most innovative and largest scale uses of a new approach to creating web applications - called responsive design - that the web has seen, which will ultimately enable us to deliver a better BBC News experience, tailored according to how and where you are using it but which is also familiar and consistent.
So my aim here is to introduce the reasons behind what we're doing.
As I say, I still use our mobile site. I really do still prefer to simply scroll up and down than the pinching and zooming required to use the main BBC News website optimised for the PC. However, I am in a minority. More of our smartphone users now choose the "full fat" recipe of the original BBC News website.
I also use our mobile app, as millions do, especially on my tablet. This serves a different need - to quickly get latest headlines - while the website offers greater breadth, depth and explanation of the news.
At that point I want to stop and make an observation. Isn't this all rather complicated? I really don't believe using our product should involve such a range of complex options and questions:
- Which device and software?
- Screen size?
- Portrait or landscape?
- App or "browser"?
- 3G or wifi?
- In the UK or elsewhere?
My brain hurts! I love the convenience of the mobile web as much as anyone, but part of me is looking back with fondness to when the internet was more or less the shape of a personal computer screen, and all we had to do every couple of years was widen the website!
Our challenge now is that the internet comes in all shapes and sizes. Social media sites, email, mapping, banking and all those useful things allow us to seamlessly move from our mobiles to our computers and back again. Increasingly we use tablets and the TV for the web too. And we all just expect everything to work.
One of the solutions to these challenges is responsive design.
Like many ideas, the thinking behind responsive design is brilliantly simple. Basically, you come to our website, we do the hard work and ask your device all those tricky questions, before delivering a page in the best shape and size, with the most "features", that your device can support.
And like all great technologies, it's easier said than done, and we're blessed with a really talented development team who have driven this innovation. The BBC certainly isn't the first to use responsive design, but we do believe we're the first big news site to start to use it for such a large audience, certainly in the UK.
The need is growing rapidly. In an average week, the BBC News mobile websites and apps are visited by around 9.7m users worldwide on mobile and tablet devices. That represents about 26% of the total traffic to BBC News Online.
And, for the BBC, it's not all about the shiny, expensive phones either. In parts of the world, the vast majority of web users don't have a PC or access to the latest fashionable device. For them, the internet is accessed via a small screen and a keypad, but is crucially important to their lives.
This need for universality is another reason why BBC News is enthusiastically developing responsive design solutions. Unlike many competitors, we are not a business that can target only those audiences who can afford a certain kind of smartphone or tablet. We have an obligation to deliver our core product to screens of all kinds of shapes and sizes. BBC Online has a strategy to deliver to four screens, and that is exactly what responsive design offers.
You're probably now asking what the plan is and when you can expect change? That's probably for another blog post, since we have a lot of work to do yet. However I can say that:
- This new "mobile" site will work for tablets and computers from day one, and will even offer some basic resizing and reshaping. We'd love your feedback if you use it on any device.
- Our plan is to gradually "optimise" and deliver essential features roughly in order of device size and complexity, starting with the smallest and simplest. So the first imminent step is designed for mobile phones but available to all.
- More features will be delivered to offer mobile and tablet users a better experience with all the advantages of the "full fat" site but none of the awkwardness.
- Eventually, the main website will be delivered in this way too but that is still some way off, and it will be a gradual, step-by-step process rather too complex to go into now, but which we will return to in the future.
Chris Russell is Head of Product for BBC News Online