2pm GMT on Monday 23rd March saw the BBC launch a responsive version of the news home page for all device types. As the BBC operated an m. web site providing different layout for desktop and mobile phones the approach was to replace the desktop web site with a slightly modified version of the mobile site.
I'm well aware that any change to a much loved web site will generate negative feedback. I remain concerned that digital technologist treat such feedback as a sign of both success and progress. I've focused this brief analysis on specific examples where the desire for "one web" delivered via Response Web Design (RWD) has demonstrably reduced the desktop User Experience (UX).
Unlike the launch of the new mobile home page frequent users were offered a chance to try out and comment on the new version for 3 months prior to the switch over. It's therefore reasonable to assume the easy to resolve issues would have been addressed prior to launch. I therefore waited with interest to learn how the masses would react to the changes. Using just a small selection of the 1500 user comments I highlight where the responsive approach falls short of delivering a great user experience.
"I live between three regional BBC areas and used the regional map to switch between sites, now I can only select one region Notts, and can't find Lincs or Leics as easily." - Read
"The UK map that was soooooo useful and meant you could find your area/county in two clicks has disappeared. I counted four clicks to get to Kent this morning...hardly a technological advance. I thought website developers were always told to keep the number of clicks to a minimum or people just lose interest and go elsewhere?" - Read
The previous version of the desktop web site enabled news for different regions to be selected using a map. This easy to use and understand visual selection process has been removed. It's hard to recreate such an interface that will work equally as well on a desktop and small screen.
No More TV Channel
"Before we could read [comprehensive] coverage and go immediately to the BBC news channel." - Read
The BBC are one of the finest news organisations in the world. They have a 24 hour news channel which I used to dip in and out of at various times of day when tied to my desk. This is now missing from the news home page. It's still possible via other routes, but none as intuitive as just going to the news page.
"The presentation of the content however is terrible, and the need to do multiple page clicks to get to features that were on the main page before is a major criticism that appears repeatedly in users' responses, as is a general dislike of the overall dumbing down of the site and its increased reliance on video footage rather than well-written news reports." - Read
Users of the desktop web site liked to see a fuller article summary under the headlines. These worked well along with 4 or 5 opinions about the story from multiple angles. This has all but been removed and reduced to a single headline, occasional sub headline and image. It's going to be hard to add this feature back into the web site as it'll take up too much space on a 6 square inch screen.
The desktop gets dumbed down to support the lowest common denominator.
"Articles now seem to be randomly scattered with no sense of order or [priority]." - Read
"Take the front page. Look at the old version. So easy to read. You just scan down. Now with the new version you have to dart your eyes all over the page. Not logical. Not readable. Definitely NOT usable. To say it has not been designed just for tablets and smartphones is misleading. It has." - Read
When there's more screen space available content can be laid out and categorised clearly, supported with additional information. Many comments relate to the scattered layout of previously well ordered articles.
Commenting on the changes Niko Vijayaratnam, Senior Product Manager, said "Releasing this new version is going to make us more cost effective going forward as we’ll only need to maintain this single codebase (prior to this change we had to maintain both the 'desktop' and 'responsive' sites)".
Content Management Systems (CMS) and framework vendors like Microsoft bake techniques to produce multiple layouts driven by parameters such as device type, language, demographic or location into their products. As such I find this justification very hard to seriously accept. It either shows an ignorance of the technology now available or is indicative of a group think around RWD that has become gospel and is rarely challenged by facts or business return on investment.
Consider. If you're going to optimise a complex web site for different screens sizes you'll need to think about the way content will display on these different screens. With RWD alone the logic associated with these changes is implemented in the web browser such that a single page will adapt itself for each device. Media queries which typically underpin such logic are effectively logical "If" statements providing different instructions to the browser when certain conditions, typically screen, size are either true or false.
By using multiple server side layouts for the different devices (not necessarily m. web sites) the solutions available increase, but the thought process remains the same. The logic remains the same, the "If" logic and associated code just resides somewhere else. With the right tools the codebase remains the same.
With the right platform the best of all worlds can be achieved and a great user experience created which delivers improved return on investment without being constrained by an artificial concept of "one web".
Maybe me and the other people that bothered to analyse why we didn't like some aspects of this change shouldn't be so concerned and accept the dumbing down of the big screen as the digital world rushes for mobile first.
"The BBC has done lots of redesigns through the years. And it's always the same after a week, you can't remember what the previous version looked like. Yes, I have some small quibbles with the new design but it's still pretty good." - Read