Lessons to learn as the BBC closes down the popular 'low graphics' news pages

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In a move to placate a lot of very unhappy mobile web users (including myself), the BBC’s Anthony Sullivan hopes that the upcoming BBC Accessibility Tools will allow people to replicate the “low graphics” version of the BBC News website. Unfortunately, for people who’ve been using that version of the site for over ten years, it feels like they’ve lost a close friend. There’s a lesson in here for web developers around the world, read on.

The 'low graphics' version of the BBC News website was little more than a page of text, but it gave a headline and one line description of the major stories, as well as the top stories in each section of the News site. All on one page, and then a single click through to get to each story. Very information dense, and only a tiny thumbnail picture on the full story. When the world was on 9.6kbps modems, this was the height of sophistication, and you’d think in the world of broadband and 3G it would be forgotten about.

Far from it – it was a simple view, it gave people what they wanted, and worked on a huge range of devices.

And it’s now been switched off.

The official line from the BBC is that people can a) use their more capable phones to browse the main news website, or b) switch to the 'mobile' version. That would be the mobile version that shows less headlines, more fancy graphics, no one line story summary, and feels very much like a downgrade to me.

Opera Mobile Review Opera Mobile Review 
Then and Now, as viewed on Opera Mini

I’ll be honest, since the switchover happened I’ve simply stopped visiting the BBC on my mobile. Have I found an alternative? Not yet (although you can configure Google News to a certain extent via a big long URL), but I do know that what worked before has been removed without a suitable alternative offered to me. I feel a bit put out over that and a nice hot cup of tea isn’t enough to placate me.

The move seems to reflect the changing nature towards website access while on the move – rather than just present the information in a clean view of black text, white background, formatted to a column exactly one screen width wide (or just wrap the text), mobile sites are now looking to become a vision of the main site and the associated branding. Yes it looks very pretty and I’m sure that the “user engagement via pattern recognition and shadowed association” scores are very high, but this isn't a new project where you can start with a clean sheet of paper - there are existing users who have expectations that don't tally up with your trendy designers.

Am I just too old school when I do a a Joe Friday and ask for “just the facts, web ma’am?”

Not everyone in the world has a nice fast 3G connection, or even broadband that can support a big multimedia site, which is why lower bandwidth sites should still be a requirement in any design. It’s just a shame that in switching from one type of site (low) to another type (mobile), the more modern design has less information, more clicks, and uses more bandwidth and time to read the same content.

From what I can see, the only public justification in terms of the volume of users is that the mobile site is accessed by only 2% of the total of BBC News readers. So if 2% is the cut-off mark, why would they consider building dedicated applications for the iPlayer on S60 devices, or an iPhone news application?

The realities of systems architecture in web programming means that there will always be issues when doing upgrades and not every user will be satisfied, but what should always be part of any switchover plan is that you should not remove a (basic, simple) service that is already there.

In the case of BBC News, someone has made the decision that the Mobile version is the equivalent of the Low Graphics version – unfortunately pretty much everyone else in the real world disagrees with that opinion from both an aesthetic and technical standpoint, and the Corporation is losing a lot of goodwill over this, as can be seen in the comments to Sullivan’s blog post (to be fair though, it’s unlikely that people thinking “I really like this” would comment with as much vigour).

And that should be a lesson for every major website and information portal when handling mobile users.

-- Ewan Spence, July 2010.