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Science & Technology Series: Expert Comment

BBC News website takes on a new and responsive design

City user experience experts comment on the BBC’s new online look.
by John Stevenson (Senior Communications Officer)

The BBC News website, one of the world’s largest and most visited websites, was switched off this week. All visitors are now being directed to a newer, responsive design, which adapts its layout depending on what type of device it is being used on, such as a desktop PC, tablet or mobile phone.

According to the BBC, these changes have come about as a result of changes in the way visitors to the site consume their news.

Head of product for the News and Weather websites at the BBC, Robin Pembrooke, said:

“We now see 65% of our visitors to the website are on mobile or tablet devices. The old site that we had, which is now four-plus years old, was really designed with PCs in mind. Moving to a fully responsive solution which works across mobile, tablets and desktops is the way to go. It means that we can have one solution that is a web solution for all of our users.”

While regular BBC News users will find the website more navigable in its present state, Dr George Buchanan, a Reader specialising in information interaction at City’s Centre for Human-Computer Interaction Design (HCID), says creating a satisfying user experience for mobile and desktop PC users is not without its difficulties:

“Any change to a website disrupts the experience for many of its users. The new BBC ‘responsive’ site changes the focus of the website from presuming the user is very likely using a PC, to assuming that there is a good likelihood that they will be using a mobile. Many users who do not own a PC do own a mobile or tablet device. In the USA, research has shown that a quarter of web users do not own a PC. It’s likely that a similar proportion applies here in the UK. Therefore, many regular BBC news website readers will find the site easier to use in its new, mobile-focussed design. However, those used to the desktop-focussed traditional site will find the content relatively bare. Creating a consistently satisfying user experience for both mobile and PC users is challenging.”

Dr Stephann Makri, a Lecturer in Information Interaction, says that although changes of the kind made recently by the BBC tend to divide users into those for and against the improvements, the fundamental information architecture of the BBC News website still remains the same. He explains:

“When a large organisation changes the design of its website, it will frequently polarise user opinion. ‘Good’ design is, after all, partly subjective and the BBC has millions of users to satisfy. Some of the changes the BBC has made to the visual design of its website (such as including more white space), in my opinion, make news pages clearer and 'cleaner.' They have, however, made very few fundamental changes to the Information Architecture (the organisation and structure) of the site. Although the 'England,' 'Scotland,' 'N. Ireland' and 'Wales' headings have disappeared in the new design, they are still present as sub-headings under 'UK.' Very little has actually changed deep down.”

Dr Buchanan says the concept of responsive design, which the BBC has employed to make changes to its website, is a low-cost approach which is not always best for users:

“Fifteen years ago, research demonstrated that mobile users find full desktop websites overwhelming and difficult to use. Though screen resolutions have improved, even today’s mobile phones would fall within the sizes known to be problematic back then. Responsive design is one technological approach to providing mobile sites at a low cost. Using responsive technology still requires a clear focus on designing for the end user. The BBC redesign shares one common weakness with many responsive sites: the use of a “hamburger” icon, containing three horizontal lines, to show further navigation choices. User experience researchers have shown this is, if a common icon, in fact a poor design choice. The three lines give little idea of what the icon contains, and the colour often blends into the website colour theme, making it harder to identify as an active part of the interface. While some argue that this is increasingly well-known to users, leading commentators such as Jared Spool remain highly critical of what is in principle a weak piece of design.”

Responsive web design

Responsive web design implies the formatting of website design in such a way that it is most optimal for viewing and navigation across a wide range of devices, including traditional PCs, smartphones and tablet devices.

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