From Small Things, Big Things Will Soon Come

The way consumers use digital media changes constantly and rapidly, and that will likely make 2014 a notable year for the evolution of industry websites. Ever-demanding viewers can expect to see shifts in the way broadcasters, cable channels and news organizations offer content, as much higher mobile usage forces a blanket rethinking of website designs.

Anyone thinking this sounds like an upending of the traditional design process is quite correct. A few years ago, companies created very rich complex websites for the large powerful computers and then simplified them for mobile devices. That, however, won’t cut it anymore, in a world where U.S. adults own more than 156 million smartphones, and tablet penetration is approaching the 50% mark.

“Video used to be challenging on mobile,” which had small screens and limited bandwidth, explains Doug Vance, VP of product development for ABC News. “But in the past few years, we’ve seen rapid increases in the quality and usage of these devices,” making it increasingly imperative to design rich, userfriendly experiences for them.

Much of that work has occurred via apps. But programmers are increasingly looking to offer a more unified experience across all platforms. To accomplish this, they are doing something of a turnaround: designing sites first for the limited screen space on mobile devices and then adapting the site for larger screens using responsible design techniques and technologies that automatically reconfigure the look of a site for different devices and screen sizes.

Channeling Mobile First

In early February, NBC News rolled out a new site based on a “mobile first” approach to Web design, and others are moving in the same direction. Weather Channel is in the process of revamping its mobile site; MTV is redesigning show pages using responsive design techniques; Discovery is working on a major upgrade to all of its sites this year; and CNN is planning to unveil a more mobilecentric site before this year’s digital upfronts.

“Every media company has to be mobile first,” says KC Estenson, senior VP and general manager of CNN Digital.

Likewise, Fox redesigned the pages for American Idol using responsive design and is now working on other show pages at Fox. com. “It’s a gradual transition but we will get to the point where the whole site will be completely responsive design,” says Hardie Tankersley, VP of innovation at Fox Broadcasting.

Such efforts can be risky because they can radically change the way consumers experience websites and need to address security issues. “Right now, there isn’t a secure way to deliver long-form video on mobile,” says Marc DeBevoise, executive VP and GM, entertainment, sports and news, CBS Interactive, which has relied on apps and desktop platforms to deliver full-length episodes.

Mobile-first efforts also necessitate major changes in the way digital teams work. Leslie Grandy, senior VP of product and development at Discovery Communications, stresses that small screen sizes require a very careful, very rigorous design process so that the results can work on both PCs and smartphones.

“That is a very tough exercise,” adds Kristin Frank, executive VP of connected content for Viacom Music and Logo Group.

A mobile-centric world, where users often share and discover stories and video via social media, also requires changes in the way content is created. “It isn’t enough to simply invest in creating a site that looks beautiful on mobile, if the stories you deliver aren’t designed to be mobile-first,” says Gregory Gittrich, executive editor of

The Simplified Digital Life

One of the big promises of the mobile-first approach is that it will provide a more unified experience across all devices and in the process simplify cluttered desktop websites.

“When we talked to users, they consistently said the sites are too busy and that they wanted a consistent experience across devices,” says Chaki Ng, VP product, connected content for Viacom Music and Logo Group.

Starting from the design process with mobile can help deal with the problems of adapting a desktop site to the smaller screens. “If users have to zoom in and out all the time to find what they want, it isn’t a good experience and they will stop coming to the site,” says Grandy at Discovery, which is in the middle of a major overhaul of their sites and digital properties this year.

However, starting the design process with mobile requires developers to be extremely selective about what they put on the screen. “In the past everything was put in there and there is a lot of clutter,” Grandy says. “Now every pixel has to work harder.”

“Mobile first is really the key to improving the design,” adds Ng, who also stresses that it creates some difficult design choices.

Desktop sites may have 25 or 30 different elements on them, “but for the fan, they probably only care about three things,” Ng says. “So when you really focus on the small screen of an iPhone, you’re forced to come up with the things they really care about. That is a tough exercise but when you get through it, you are focusing on what fans care about.”

This also requires some changes in the way digital products are developed. “Every media company has to be mobile first,” adds Estenson at CNN. “I start every product meeting asking about how it works on mobile and then we work our way back to the Web. We spend countless hours thinking about how the design rolls across all devices.”

The difficulties of getting those designs right is pushing programmers to do more research on how people use their sites and digital products. “The biggest thing is to understand fans and audiences in a much deeper way both quantitatively and qualitatively,” says Cameron Clayton, president of the digital division at The Weather Company.

The Weather Company was one of the earliest to embrace mobile, but Clayton argues they approached design “not from a mobile-first but a fan-first point of view and what they want.” As a result, he cautions that designers shouldn’t depart too radically from users’ expectations.

Ad revenue poses another challenge in the mobile world. While users of CNN’s digital products have downloaded more than 40 million apps around the world and it is getting over 1 billion page views a month on the mobile Web, “advertising hasn’t run up as fast as consumer consumption has,” says Estenson, who believes this will change.

Share the Bits

Another major issue is social media, which is transforming the way people find and consume news.

“The days when people discovered their news on two or three places is over and aren’t coming back,” says Gittrich at NBC News. “They are discovering stories in many places. So it’s important for us to figure out a way to publish in mobile first and distribute it in many places so people can discover it on Facebook, Twitter, Reddit and other sites and then bring them back to our core products.”

This dynamic also means that journalists and editors need to change the way they tell stories so that they are designed for the way people use social media and mobile devices. “Our biggest focus is on how to tell stories in a truly digital way, which may be simply with a standalone image, a Gif or a one-line headline so that it is easier to share on mobile,” Gittrich adds.

This is particularly important for news. DeBevoise at CBS Interactive notes that about 15% to 20% of their traffic on the entertainment sites is coming from mobile and that mobile accounts for 30% to 40% of the traffic on their news sites.

To capitalize on that they have been expanding the amount of dedicated mobile content they create and work to embed social experiences into their offerings.

Given that a lot of users discover news articles or content from social media, “we are looking at how to make the traffic from social sticky,” DeBevoise adds.

Vance at ABC adds that traffic from mobile Web and apps is very different, with most of the traffic on the mobile Web coming from search engines or social media. “Users will go to a specific story on the mobile Web that they’ve seen on Facebook or Twitter,” he says. “So we’ve focused on speed to get to the story and on ways to keep them there.”

Live streaming of breaking news events is particularly attractive for mobile users. Vance notes that mobile usage of the live feeds of the L.A. airport shootings last fall on their mobile app was about five times higher than desktop. That data has prompted them to make these live feeds more accessible.

Features for accessing user-generated content also remain important. Clayton says that since launching the Weather Underground app last fall with features that allow users to report microclimates and weather in their own area, they now have about 1 million people per month who upload content.

Design Issues Everywhere

Another design factor is TV everywhere content. Ng argues that programmers and designers need to do a better job of making it clear to users what content is available only to those with a pay-TV subscription and what is available without authentication.

“We still haven’t figured out the best way to market and explain TV everywhere to consumers,” say Fox’s Tankersley. “But we are getting close to a tipping point where it is becoming mainstream in awareness.”

Fox already reaches about half of all pay-TV subscribers with its TV everywhere deals and it has deals in the works with the rest. “We are assuming that almost everyone will have access to it,” Tankersley says. “That is what we are designing for and we are working to make access easier.”

Designers are also paying close attention to how the user is arriving on the site. Responding to research showing that someone coming to a site via social media may have different interests and expectations than one who comes from a search engine, Grandy says that they are designing their sites so they will be able to target the content to those different users.

Not everyone, of course, responds well to change, as NBC News found with its site’s mixed reviews. But as all players—from designers to programmers to users—are realizing, this evolution is a process. While Gittrich maintains that “audience metrics have been very strong,” since the NBC News site’s February 4 launch, he’s quick to add that “the relaunch was just the beginning. We’ll continue to listen to our audience as we enhance the product moving forward.”