How Vodafone UK Messes Up Wall Street Journal Mobile

Nigel Choi and Luca Passani (editor), October 7th, 2007

Introduction

While experts agree that website reformatting results in poor user-experience, this aspect may not be so obvious to the less technically savvy. While Luca has blogged about how bad making adaptation the default is, I figured it was worth spending some of my weekend to demonstrate the point as visually as possible for everyone who cares about this issue.
This document shows how Vodafone UK messes up a website that has their own way of handling mobile access. I chose the Wall Street Journal as an example: a popular website, which also offers its subscribers a mobile-optimized version of their site. Of course, the problem is the same for any site that "multi-serves" their content after recognizing the device through the HTTP user-agent header, the one that Vodafone is removing from all HTTP requests.

Note: I used the good DeviceAnywhere to collect real pixel-perfect screenshot of a Nokia 6288 on the VodaUK network.

Some Background Info

Using a PC web browser, the Wall Street Journal is largely a subscriber-only website.
WSJ is designed with desktop use in mind. As with many other websites, it's full of navigation toolbars. These are quite common web development patterns on commercial websites

mobile The situation is different when users access http://wsj.com/ with a mobile phone. In this case, users are redirected to http://mobile2.wsj.com/, which offers WSJ content in a format specifically designed for mobile devices.
The image on the right gives you a feel of the mobile experience. The UI is not as "cluttered" if compared to the desktop version, which is a rather obvious choice when considering the costraints of mobile devices (and mobile users!). For example, major market indexes are near the top of the page, i.e. real-time information that's near the heart of many WSJ subscribers and which will keep them coming for more multiple times during the day.
Immediately after that, come the latest news.
Interestingly, the mobile version offers access to the full version of articles that are only available to paying subscribers on the web. Obviously, someone in WSJ realised that loging in with username and password on a mobile device was discouraging way too many users from adopting the service in the first place. Talk about the importance of usability!

...and then come Novarra and Vodafone

On Vodafone's network, however, this user-experience is not achievable. Instead of being redirected to the mobile website, Vodafone has decided to masquerade every device on their network as a desktop browser: according to Vodafone (and their vendor Novarra) users are better off when Novarra's proxy fetches the desktop version of the WSJ site, transcodes it and and serves users this transcoded version.
So I went on and checked this out!

The following picture will give you a rather clear idea of what the website transcoding operated (perpetrated?) by Novarra is all about:





becomes »

The transcoded page has also retained a lot of information that is probably best left out of the mobile version. Not only is the use case different, but the extra information takes up valuable screen space and clutters a UI that's already hard enough to use.
Since the transcoder has no knowledge of what is immediately valuable and what is not, it ends up retaining almost the entire desktop website, toolbars included. The original web page is "chopped up" into several mobile pages. Novarra is smart enough to figure out that those toolbars are not good candidates for the first mobile page, yet the content that does end on the first mobile page is hardly "critical" for a mobile user: I got "Site Higlights", while latest news would be a much better choice.

There are several other problems with the transcoding. As you can see from the phone image above, the grey toolbar on the top and bottom of the mobile page is added by the Vodafone transcoder. However, to a user who does not know about the transcoder, there is no way to tell that the page has been adapted from a desktop page to a mobile page, and that the grey toolbar is added by Vodafone. This is different from what Google does, for example, by placing a note "Page adapted for mobile phone" at the bottom.

Other User Interface Problems

There are other serious issues with the user-experience offered by the transcoded pages. The issues are illustrated by the pictures below.
A user that intends to read an article will click their way down to the "What's news" section of the transcoded front page (lots of clicks, and everyone knows what a pain it is to be forced to click endlessly on a mobile phone).
After the new page has been retrieved and transcoded, the user will need to scroll down (lots of extra clicks) before the beginning of the article shows up on the screen.
But the suffering is not over. A hurdle that was simply not there in the mobile version shows its ugly face: "PLEASE LOG IN AT THE TOP RIGHT OF THE PAGE". Hold on a sec. Where is the "top right of the page"? I am a power users. Regular users would be totally lost here and would simply give up.
Being a mobile professional, I know what is going on: the system is referring to the desktop page of course, so I have to scroll all the way back up, then click on the previous page [<<] button in the tool bar and reach the first transcoded page again, which probably has the login form waiting for me.
One little note: I waited too long before clicking on the Novarra page buttons, and I was greeted with an error message (third picture).

what's newsarticle page expired

Trying again, I am able to enter my username and password. After clicking on the "Secure" login button, and several confirmation screens later, I am somehow greeted by a non-transcoded page. By entering http://wsj.com/ again in the browser, I am able to see the full article.

....if Vodafone just let the User-Agent header through, the Wall Street Journal would have detected that I am using a mobile phone and so much suffering would be saved! I could access mobile front page, where the article I want to read is one of the first links. I could just click on the link and get the full article. One click from the front page and I'm reading the full article text, compared to the multiple clicks and hunting I had to do using the transcoded version.

Adding to the problem is that I am not able to logout successfully. I can click on the logout link and is told by the site that I am logged out. But it seems that the web site uses some sort of Javascript for logging out. Going back to the site, I am still logged in. Changing the cookie setting in the phone does not work. Instead, I have to hunt down the "settings" link in the bottom of the transcoded page, and clear cookies there.

Conclusion

The Novarra reformatting is a mess: all I could see are roughly chopped up web sites which deliver cluttered mobile pages. From an user-exprience point of view, pages reformatted by Novarra are simply a nightmare which are guaranteed to keep normal users away from the mobile web. As badly as one can criticize Novarra, though, one can only be amazed about Vodafone UK's decision to masquerade the User-Agent HTTP header and spoil the efforts of thousands of companies who tried to deliver a decent mobile experience to their mobile users. Replacing real mobile experience with the pathetic parody of the web provided by Novarra escapes my understanding.