We find out how the BBC tested its revamped news website for mobile
The BBC's internet blog recently revealed that the BBC News website is moving to a responsive design. The update reacts to changes in browsing habits, with more people using mobile devices but also wanting the 'full fat' version of the BBC's site rather than a cut-down equivalent. The corporation therefore plans to gradually optimise and deliver essential features, then improve things over time.
With the BBC being visited by so many people, it has to work with a huge range of devices, platforms and browsers; ensuring the new site works well with them is therefore a mammoth undertaking. David Blooman, test engineer at BBC Future Media, reveals to .net how he went about doing so.
.net: What are the challenges in testing and debugging a site such as BBC News across mobile devices?
DB: The BBC has a large, global audience. This is the first challenge. It isn't as cut and dry as smaller websites. It isn't about testing it on the popular phones of the moment. It requires testing lots of devices that have been released during the past few years. There are also more platforms to cover than your typical UK site, with more focus on a global scale and what browsers are being used. Opera on Symbian is a very popular combination, so ensuring that these and other third-party browsers are tested is very important for our worldwide users.
.net: How do you go about testing?
DB: We don't use emulators and prefer to test on a suite of real devices – you get a better feel for the end user experience this way. All the developers can preview their working copy of the News site on their local machine with any device, so this has made it quite efficient to find and fix bugs before the code is released to our preview environments.
.net: Have any particular platforms affected your work, positively or negatively, as you went through the testing process?
DB: Android has significantly improved its browser support over time, which also means earlier versions are not quite up to scratch. The browser that came with 2.1 had more bugs than all the other Android versions combined, and so it's harder to work with and needs to be looked at closely.
Blackberry handsets are a particular challenge because of the hardware. The screen is small, but it has a good resolution. This means I spent a lot longer testing fonts on Blackberry to ensure they were right.
Opera Mobile is probably the most consistent browser, which is excellent because it works across so many platforms. Apple also has built a really good browser for iOS, which is good given the support it has for older devices.
.net: How do you decide on platforms/browsers/OS revisions to test in? Is it purely a numbers game?
DB: Looking at the global and UK stats for browsers from the BBC and from other stats companies was the starting point. From there, I looked at which platforms to focus on, then which versions to test. There is also something to be said from looking around on the train as you go to work, seeing what people are using and whether they are using the web or apps!
It's also important to understand possible future market trends, hence me testing on Windows Phone 7. Although it is relatively new, it's something that isn't going to disappear from sight any time soon. Although it's low in our current stats, we test it to ensure that when usage picks up, we have already solved all the problems.
.net: Is there anything you learned from this project in particular that would provide sagely advice for our readers testing their own responsive websites?
DB: Picking up a Nokia N95 with Opera mobile on and seeing HTML5 working on a six-year-old device is quite amusing. It shows you how Opera can give a phone a totally different experience – from what we call a feature phone to a smartphone with a new browser! This is why different software and hardware can play an important part – testing low resolutions, high resolutions and different browsers. It also highlights the fact you should test the browser and the platform. Android is capable of lots of different resolutions, so testing the browser against one very typical resolution could cause you problems later down the line. You'll need more phones or emulators, but this will ensure consistency and mean a more thoroughly tested website.
Image: BBC News.