Why the switch to a responsive website was long overdue for BBC News

By Neil Barraclough

Where were you back in 2011?

Instead of being a fading memory, the London Olympics were still a year away. David Cameron was just seven months into his time at 10 Downing Street.

And for a team of BBC developers, it was a time of anticipation. They had worked for months to produce a new-look BBC News website.

This week, that website got the push.

A changing audience

Back in 2011, the iPhone had been on the market for four years. It had started to change how people used the web, but the mainstream arrival of tablets – and, more recently, 4G – was yet to happen. The iPad was still only a year old.

In the hills there was the distant sound of revolution but, beyond tech geeks and hip youngsters, it had yet to burst into a mainstream crescendo.

Fast forward four years, and things are markedly different. The average smartphone user picks up their phone 221 times per day. The drums of progress are inescapable.

On Monday the BBC switched its news website to a fully responsive design. It was a change prompted entirely by our growing multi-screen habits.

“We now see 65% of our visitors to the website are on mobile or tablet devices,” said Robin Pembrooke, the BBC’s head of product for the News and Weather sites.

“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.”

Mobile-friendly websites are now a must

Since 2009 we’ve been working extensively on multi-screen web development and content marketing. Now it’s an area that’s set to have major ramifications for websites around the world.

From next month, Google will start actively penalising sites that are not responsive. A recent Google blog said: “Starting April 21, we will be expanding our use of mobile-friendliness as a ranking signal. This change will affect mobile searches in all languages worldwide and will have a significant impact in our search results.”

Millennials are stuck to their mobile, but they’re not alone. Early this year our research found more than 25% of over 55s have made a purchase on their smartphone.

Handheld devices are no longer being used purely for entertainment. Jobs that used to be the preserve of the desktop are migrating to our pockets and handbags at record pace.

Niko Vijayaratnam, the BBC’s senior product manager, said: “We’ve been tracking our audience moving in large numbers from accessing our site on computers towards predominantly using tablets and mobiles. In response to this, we’ve developed a new version of the News website which implements a responsive design so that we can offer all our users the best experience possible no matter what device they are using.”

What’s most revealing is the BBC’s own admission that 65% of their visitors come through a mobile or tablet device. That’s around 26 million people per week, or the equivalent of more than treble every man, woman and child in Scotland and Wales.

The only surprise about BBC News switching to a responsive website is that it took so long.

No longer is the moment for mobile advancing towards us. It’s already here.

Feb 28, 2013
Daniel Morehead

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