Apr 4, 2017

Introducing a faster BBC News front page

Web performance is something I care deeply about both as a developer whose work affects millions of people around the world, and as a user who often accesses the web on slow & unreliable connections. I have regularly and loudly complained that the BBC News website is unnecessarily slow, so when I was given the opportunity to help rebuild one of the most visited pages of BBC News —the front page— I jumped at the chance.

That was April 2016. Now, a whole year later, we’re ready to begin a phased rollout of the new front page. Starting with a small percentage of users in the UK, we will gradually move everybody to the new front page over the course of several weeks. If you’re eager to see it before the rollout is complete, it is available at www.bbc.co.uk/news/0.

Quick facts about the new front page

What’s next?

The version of the front page we’re rolling out is an MVP, a phase one. We will be changing it considerably over the next several months. Here’s an idea of what you can expect to see:

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Feb 13, 2017

How we assemble web pages at BBC News

This post is about the Web Application Framework in use by some teams at the BBC. It is not strictly a framework in that it specifies the contracts between components, rather than providing concrete implementations of the components. For this reason, I prefer to think of it as the Web Application Specification.

At the beginning of 2015, a group of developers and technical architects from around the BBC got together with the goal of designing a system for sharing web page components between teams. This came from an acceptance that most of the BBC’s public-facing web products have a similar look & feel, and a desire to improve efficiency through sharing rather than building similar things over and over again.

In some organisations, technologies are standardised which makes sharing components between teams a trivial task. At the BBC, teams are free to use whichever technologies they like. This means that any component-sharing solution we come up with can’t be tied to a template language, data structure, build system, or even a CSS preprocessor. This meant that building a component library like Lonely Planet’s Rizzo or CloudFlare’s CFUI was out of the picture. We also felt that something like the FT’s Origami would require too much effort on the users of the components.

We ended up going back to basics and designed a solution that is based on two premises:

  1. All of our web pages are built out of HTML, CSS, and JavaScript.
  2. Most pages have three main parts: the head, which contains metadata and styling; the body, which contains content; and the part at the end of the body, which contains JavaScript.

What we came up with is called the WAF, or Web Application Framework. It’s a surprisingly simple framework, and is built on top of three core principles:

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Dec 26, 2016

What it's like to work as a developer at BBC News

The BBC is a pretty large organisation. Today it employs around 20,000 people (actually around 35,000 when you include part-time and fixed-term contract employees) across a huge number of divisions. The BBC Careers website typically has over 100 vacancies posted on any given day. Before I joined the BBC, I found the sheer scale of it a bit intimidating. Usually I can get an idea of what it’s like to work for a company by reading their job advertisements and their engineering blogs, but with the BBC I was almost completely clueless. In this post I hope to shed some light on what it’s like to work as a developer or tester for BBC News.

Just a small disclaimer first: from an engineering perspective, the BBC is not like most other companies — it’s more like dozens of smaller companies, each with their own engineering department, working towards a common goal. News, Sport, Programmes, iPlayer, Radio… As digital products, these are all built mostly independently of each other. I work for BBC News, so a lot of what I’ve written may not apply outside of BBC News.

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Jul 22, 2016

Redefining the BBC News core experience

TL;DR: Over the last 4 years, the BBC News core experience has been transformed from a speedy 21KB page into a slow & bloated 685KB monster. This was in part due to a lack of performance monitoring and 4 years of feature creep, but also due to a lack of performance-oriented culture throughout the business.

I created a lightweight prototype of the BBC News core experience which demonstrates that focusing on the content first and foremost can result in an extremely fast page. I want the BBC and other websites to rethink what the core experience means, and experiment with giving users the power to define their own experience.

In the beginning of 2012 the BBC Responsive News team wrote about how they provide a “core experience” for users by default, and then progressively enhance the page if the browser cuts the mustard. At the time, this was cutting edge. They were able to build pages that worked on practically any browser without compromising the experience for users on modern browsers. To quote directly from the Responsive News blog:

The first tier of support we call the core experience. This works on everything. I’ve seen it work on a Nokia E65, a Blackberry OS4, Kindle 1, a HTC Touch 2 running Win Mobile 6.5, a Samsung U900 Soul, a Commodore Vic20, my nan’s slipper and a toaster just sellotaped to a TV. Likewise, GoogleBot, text-browsers like Lynx, folks that disable JavaScript and so on are all assured a good level of service.

This technique is still in use today, and is an integral part of the front-end strategy for all modern BBC News pages. In 2012 it allowed the team to provide a fast and lightweight experience for users on low-end devices. 7 HTTP requests totalling 21KB was all it took to load the core experience of the BBC News front page. All users benefited from this fast initial page load, with modern browsers progressively enhancing the rest of the page after the content was loaded.

It has been over 4 years since the BBC News core experience was first built, and a lot has changed since then. Today, the core experience consists of 91 HTTP requests totalling 685KB – over 32x heavier than the original core experience. With JavaScript disabled this can be reduced to 137KB – still over 6x heavier.

The BBC News team is aware of their website’s shortcomings. Back in May 2015 I conducted a huge performance review which I’ve spoken about extensively both internally and externally (video). A lot of work has been done over the last year, and many of the issues mentioned in those slides have already been addressed. Despite this, the elephant in the room is still the core experience.

That’s why when BBC News ran an internal hack day (where people can form teams to work on whatever they like) I took the opportunity to totally redefine the BBC News core experience.

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