If the new BBC homepage is from tabloid Mars, then the FT web app is from broadsheet Venus. It’s a bit unfair comparing the just released BBC homepage with the fully launched and comprehensive FT web app. Nevertheless, it’s worth doing a quick comparison for two reasons: first because both brands are giants of the publishing industry and second because the world of tablets and smartphones is in such a flux that any innovation which might point to a new UX convention ought to get everyone to sit up and take notice.
The new Beta BBC homepage
The FT web app
- BBC follows the tabloid route with massive images and little text. The user is expected to skim through the attention-demanding content boxes in order to decide whether anything is of interest. The end result is noise, but this is not necessarily a bad thing, as when it comes to getting a quick news fix, quantity is more important than quality.
- The FT follows the quality route, with less content per square inch, smaller images, more text, subheadings and a more relaxed layout. It expects the user to spend a bit more time on each story before they decide to make the committing click (tap). Overall, it is a more calming and less demanding experience.
- BBC aims for the lowest common denominator (if such a thing exists when it comes to niche products such as tablets) with very simple and always visible navigation. Of course, the caveat here is that for now, the new BBC homepage is just that, a homepage. When the full site launches in the near future, the navigation might have evolved into something totally different.
- FT goes for a more refined navigation mechanism, still simple but available only on demand via a tab button. The horizontal scrolling works well, the iconography adds class and refinement and the whole mechanism exudes sophistication. UX purists might prefer the whole menu stripped of all the fancy stuff and squeezed into half the space, but this would probably be like putting F1 controls into a Bentley.
Tablet apps constantly raise expectations with richer and more refined design and UX. Here though we must not forget that both the BBC homepage and the FT web app are in essence websites built in HTML, so they need to stay as slim as possible. Neither feature textures, atmospheric shading, sculpted buttons, multilayered navigation or other UI bling often found in native apps.
- The FT though has the upper hand, offering a more refined experience with moderate shading, rounded corners and more attention to detail.
- The BBC homepage is stripped of any such fancy stuff. At times, I can’t help thinking that it looks like a Visio wireframe waiting to be designed.
- BBC goes for full page coverage without any cropped content or negative space. It’s a 8 column x 2 row grid with stories taking up varied number of cells. The grid helps the information to stay well organised and always in sight, but the whole thing feels too busy. Your eyes wander around desperately looking for something to focus on, but the amount of information makes the page impenetrable. If such a busy environment is to work, the UI needs to be richer, with colour and structural graphics helping prioritise the content and guiding the user’s eyes.
- The FT follows a more relaxed layout where negative space is allowed to play a big part in the user experience. Despite the horizontal page change, the web app follows a vertical structure, comfortably spreading the content across multiple page folds. Yes, the BBC features vertical scroll as well (the lower half of the homepage is a lot easier to read by the way) but still treats the top half as a self contained page. Comparing usage stats between the two sites would be extremely interesting; the future of tablet-optimised websites might depend on its findings!
- The FT wins hands down, but only because the content preloads. This means that the user gets a painful loading bar at the beginning but if you have the necessary patience, you will be treated to fast paced experience, similar to what you would get from a native app.
- The BBC does not preload which might explain why each horizontal scroll requires effort and patience.
I am looking forward to more such websites launching. Tablets are here to stay and they have already had a profound impact on web design. Websites of mass appeal such as the BBC and the FT will help turn design speculation as to what works on tablets and what doesn’t, into solid facts that will fuel the next generation of multi-platform websites.