XFM.co.uk Relaunch (and why it’s not responsive)

The Xfm website relaunched today – on a new CMS and with a new design.

There’s very little absolutely new stuff that the previous site didn’t have, but lots of improved features, better UI and snappier performance. In particular, the playlist has been improved with better browse-ability and search. The content’s been re-structured too, with the site becoming more artist-centric than news-centric.

On the design front, compared to the last site, it’s bigger, bolder, brighter and more confident, which reflects the current buoyant mood at XFM generally. If you’re a regular visitor to XFM.co.uk, you might notice that the site refers to itself as ‘XFM’ rather than ‘Xfm’ – a tiny detail, but an important one.


The re-launch has gone down well with feedback being mostly positive. The one criticism has been that the new site design isn’t a responsive one. As a Technical Lead on the team that built this new iteration of the site I guess I’m in a good position to answer this criticism, but, speaking honestly, it’s not really a technical issue – more one of commercial and cost issues.

XFM Is Not The Priority

Despite how proud we are of the new site, how confident we are it will be a success and how proud we are of it, it’s been a fairly cheap re-launch on the development front.

The development process was an investment of 20 man-days – a single developer for four weeks. That included the redesign, handling content migration and the bulk of the testing. If you have any insight into the web development process, you’ll know that, for a site of this magnitude, that’s next to nothing.

The parent company of XFM, Global Radio, is home to several radio brands: CapitalFM, Heart and ClassicFM as well as Gold, ChoiceFM and LBC. As you can imagine, the priorities of the company are the bigger brands: ClassicFM is a national FM station, The Heart network comprises 17 FM stations, Capital is 9 stations. By comparison, XFM is two stations and lies further away from the mainstream – in terms of revenue & audience it’s dwarfed by the three major brands.

It’s difficult for the business to prioritise XFM over the other brands. On the flip-side of that argument, the smaller brands may get the reflected benefit of investment in the larger brands. And that’s what’s happening here: If you look closely, you might see that the new XFM site has a lot in common with the site of a sister brand, ClassicFM. It’s a re-skin of the Classic site, with a handful of customisations.

When the Capital, Heart & Classic sites utilise responsive design techniques to render more helpfully on smaller devices such as iPhones, XFM will, I imagine, be able to follow suit.

Commercial Radio HAS TO Make Money

To answer the question as to why not a single one of the sites is responsive as yet, well the answer is probably one of cost and revenue opportunities.

The sites, in their current state, generate not-inconsequential revenue – mostly from display advertising and sponsorship. The mobile apps, for iOS and Android devices, also generate revenue via advertising. The two contexts utilise different third-party software to deliver those ads and the required relevant metrics relating to delivery and responses.

If you’ve ever had to work with ad software you’ll know it’s often shitty technology. The demand on the software is often to deliver creatives of ever increasing ambition, interaction and eye-candy. For this reason it often cocks a snook at web design/development best-practices. It’s seldom performant or cacheable and often fragile. On the websites the ads take upto 50% of the download and the time taken to render the site – on the apps the ads are the main reason for crashes and instability.

But those ads make money.

Once you start applying responsive design techniques to a site like CapitalFM you’ll find it increasingly difficult to retain effective ads – believe me, I’ve tried. The online ad industry has yet to seize the responsive challenge and run with it – even the Google AdSense platform has only recently dipped an experimental toe in these murky waters.

You could argue that, once a device isn’t able to deliver an ad creative in a performant and affective manner, maybe it shouldn’t deliver that creative at all. I might agree with you, but it’s not my call.

The bottom line is that making a commercial radio site responsive might not make money. It will be expensive – reverse engineering responsive qualities into a mature site isn’t easy – and it might not reap dividends. Maybe the site will get more repeat visits, maybe the site will get more traffic, maybe mobile users will visit more pages per visit, but if those users aren’t being exposed to effective advertising, then it’s difficult to justify the expense in the first place.

Mobile Listening – “Just Pushing To The App Isn’t Enough”

This is a more specific criticism that I’ve read (not just of XFM – but or radio sites in general). Visit any of the in-house-managed Global Radio brand-sites with a mobile device and, instead of a LISTEN button, you’ll be given a ‘DOWNLOAD OUR APP’ button. This is mostly because that’s currently the best user experience. A lot of time and care has been invested in the apps, they’re popular, people like them and they work. Also, they make money for the company. The current online, in-browser player, is part of the UK Radio Player. It doesn’t work on mobile devices and the user experience is poor. That will change in an up-coming update of UKRP, but it’s not code that is managed by Global Radio, so it’s been out of our hands.

As a side note, the next iteration of UKRP is also unlikely to be responsive. But it will be able to play audio.

Responsive Design – It’s Just Another Stylesheet, Right?

This is another comment I’ve read in and amongst the arguments for applying a Responsive Design Pattern. Well, maybe. But that’s just like saying: “Radio? It’s just a bunch of records, right?” It’s way more nuanced and complex than that.

I’m not sure that taking a 1Mb web-page, adding some more download weight to it and then expecting the user experience on a mobile device with a patchy 3G signal to be satisfactory is necessarily wise. It’s a common knee-jerk reaction, but I’m not sure how scalable or maintainable a technique that might be.

Ideally, the base site should be light, giving the browsing device the core essential information, and then make decisions on what extra styling/behaviour to download before the user sees the site. But this is more than just bolting on some extra stuff, it’s a delicate process that requires experimentation, care and time.


Global Radio relaunched XFM.co.uk, with lots win!

  • Better, more on-brand, visual design
  • Better playlists
  • Better search
  • News & Gallery in the iOS and Android apps. W00t!
  • A better CMS, meaning the editorial team can producing more, and better quality content
  • Better structure
  • Better SEO value

And, despite the lack of responsive design techniques, it does render much better and is more readable and more browse-able, on handheld devices.

The biggest win though, is getting it onto the in-house CMS and off a 3rd-party CMS that was rotting on the vine. It means we CAN improve it in the future – even tiny iterations over the last few years have been frustratingly difficult and costly.

A responsive design might even be one of the next iterations to look forward to.


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