How The Guardian redesigned its mobile site

The newspaper's Marcus Austin explains the pitfalls to avoid

Guardian Mobile

When The Guardian finally relaunched its mobile site a couple of months ago, it created quite a buzz.

Marcus Austin, the newspaper's mobile product manager, talked .net magazine through the project

.net: Why did it take so long for The Guardian to relaunch its mobile site?

Marcus Austin: For the last nine years people – normally people in the mobile industry – have pronounced that this was the "year of mobile". In 2008, The Guardian decided that it finally was the year of mobile.

The catalysts for this change were the iPhone and the unlimited mobile connections. The launch of the iPhone in '07 was a definite contributing factor: its simple UI and the ability to show good quality images made it a real door opener. Plus mobile internet packages like T-Mobile's Web 'n' Walk helped push the idea of a mobile internet into the public's mind.

.net: What devices and platforms are supported?

MA: The aim was to make work for all devices and all platforms. The idea was to give users the best experience we could. We wanted the lowest spec mobiles to be able to view the site, as well as smartphones, Sony PSPs, mobile internet devices, UMPCs (Ultra mobile PCs), MIDs (Mobile Internet Devices) and Eee PCs. When you enter, the site identifies the device you use from a database of thousands of devices and formats the screen correctly.

.net: How did you get involved in the project?

MA: I did a presentation on "why The Guardian needs to go mobile" to a couple of the directors in early 2008 and I was taken on in June 2008.

.net: What was your mobile strategy?

MA: User experience was key, and part of that was the desire to provide as full a version of The Guardian as we could. The perception for most users is that a mobile site is just the main site but on a smaller screen, and we wanted that to be the case.

We also wanted the user to be able to read an article from the newspaper, and the main site, at breakfast or at work, and to be able to continue to read that article on their mobile on the train on the way to work or in the coffee shop at lunchtime. The Guardian mobile site accesses data from over 60 sections of the full site, and we're doing some work to expand that range even further.

.net: Who helped you create the site? Why did you choose Bluestar Mobile to build it?

MA: We chose Bluestar Mobile because of their pedigree of mobile site building and because they were experts in using the MobileIQ Fabric portal, which underpins the mobile site. MobileIQ's platform is incredibly powerful and enabled us to build the site in a tenth of the time.

.net: What were the main challenges?

MA: Time. We had two and half months to build the site and get hundreds of thousands of pages of information onto a micro-miniature piece of screen real estate. The final challenge was managing expectations. Mobile site building is all about compromises: you'll never get complete buy-in from everyone. We all have mobile phones and we're all experts in what we think a mobile site should provide.

.net: How is the site funded? What did you do in terms of advertising on the site?

MA: The site is advertising funded. We have sponsored sections: the football scores and fixtures results section is sponsored by William Hill, and we serve banner ads to the site through 4Th Screen. We also have Google AdSense on each page.

.net: What's next for mobile and The Guardian?

MA: I think we all have a lot to learn about how we work with touchscreen devices and small screens. We're all very familiar with building for broadband and big screens with keyboards and mice, but the mobile world is still uncharted territory. I see there being very close parallels to the way the internet took off: in mobile we're still back in the late '90s.

We have early adopters, who understand the limitations of the mobile internet using the mobile equivalent of 56K modems, and what we're waiting for is the ISPs – in mobile's case it's the network operators – to give us simple to use, broadband connection, for a fixed monthly cost.

We're also looking for an everyman device: while the iPhone is an excellent product it's in no way a mass-market device. Devices like the INQ from Three and the just-announced ZTE Vairy touch handset from T-Mobile UK are potential devices to fill that slot.


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