By Danny Kulas
Website speed matters. To the user, to the company, to the bottom line. At least, it should. With the pace at which technology has been evolving, you might expect website performance to follow a similar pattern, only that hasn’t quite been the case. In today’s day-and-age, a good majority of people want things yesterday and become annoyed when instant gratification is anything but instant. For example, when you’re surfing on-line for some specific piece of content and the website you visit to locate said-content takes longer than 4 seconds to load, chances are you aren’t hanging around for the hare to cross the finish line and have already navigated to another site in search of that treasured article, hand-bag, video, etc. You aren’t alone. People are beginning to flex their click-muscles and bounce-rate-ability more than ever in defiance of poor performing websites and that does affect any business’ bottom-line. What are symptoms of a slow website? Is anything being done? These questions (and more) will be answered in the text that follows.
What, exactly, is the issue?
Websites are getting slower and users are becoming increasingly frustrated. As the web has evolved and become more interactive, filled with all sorts of bells and whistles, so too have websites. The issue, although, is that with these new ‘bells and whistles’, there have been little-to-no checks-and-balances on how that would affect overall website performance and because of that oversight, companies and users alike are suffering. I will go out on a limb and say, with 100% confidence, that you have experienced a slow-loading website, sometime in your life, and became annoyed by the delay it caused. That experience is what I am trying to dissect with this post. And believe me, speed is user experience.
“It’s all about the user!” shouts your project manager, as they neglect performance and push libraries and shiny solutions into your workspace. For a long time, user experience meant how a user interacts with your website once they’ve navigated to it, and that still (to a large degree) holds true. But theres something more that dictates how positively (or negatively) a user experiences your website and that is website speed performance. Now, it isn’t just about how the components of your website function and serve the user, its about how fast they can do it as well as how fast your website takes to load on the initial visit. Website and network speeds don’t just affect user experience, they also have a severe affect on education! When someone ventures out on the web in search of whatever they’re looking for, they don’t want to wait seconds (yes, seconds) for it to load, they want it instantaneously. And making your user wait longer than 4 seconds can have devastating results on your bottom-line.
What To Do?
Surely there must be something that can be done to help mitigate these nasty by-products of surfing the web, right? Well, yes! In fact, there are plenty of techniques and practices (pre-fetching resources, reducing HTTP requests, image optimization, and so on) developed by the web community to deal with this very problem. The only issue is that it seems companies are a bit slow at adopting these best-practices. Have no fear, for Google has risen to the challenge in hopes of ‘nudging’ companies in the right direction. And let’s be honest, it’s quite concerning when the top 10K websites have an average load time of 9.5 seconds when users are only willing to wait around for 4 seconds for your content to load. Many people will simply navigate to a different website to find what they’re looking for, even though that detour will certainly have added more time to their browsing experience. At least the user is still required to be active during their search, which leads me to the idea of ‘Active’ and ‘Passive’ waiting.
An airport in Houston was constantly receiving complaints from their travelers that their luggage was taking incredibly too long to reach the baggage-claim area. In the end, they rectified the problem by moving the arriving flights to a terminal on the opposite side of the airport from that of the baggage-claim area. The thought behind this (and it was a correct one, complaints dropped to zero after the implementation) was that customers were initially being subjected to a passive wait, meaning that when they left the plane they were able to get to the baggage-claim area quickly (due to proximity) and left waiting several minutes (which can feel like an eternity when you’re just standing around) for their bags to arrive. So, by moving the flight-arrivals terminal to the opposite side of the airport, thus subjecting their travelers to an active wait (making them take several minutes to walk instead of standing around), by the time the passengers reached the baggage-claim area, their bags were sitting there waiting for them. Even though the entire process of de-boarding the plane and getting their bags still took the exact same amount of time, it was perceived as shorter because the passenger was engaged in an activity that took their mind off of the wait. It’s all about perception and that isn’t just meant for airports, it goes the same for websites, too. Even loading portions of your website at a time (giving the user something to look at/interact with while the entire of your site is still loading) will pay dividends.
Timing is Everything
Now, I’m going to sound crazy with what I’m about to say, especially in light of how this post has been going, but here goes…“Sometimes, having a website that is really fast can be a poor user experience.” Let me explain before you call for my head! There are edge-cases in web development (and iOS/Android/etc) where you would want your website to respond slower, in game settings, for example. If there is a game that you’ve invested a lot of time into playing, you may not want the game-winning move/play/strategy/results/etc to be calculated and displayed instantaneously. Delaying the game-play results can build the suspense and create a more emotional experience for the user that they are more likely to remember and may even continue playing the game. In game development, for example, I can remember playing the championship cup races in Mario Kart and after the last race, there is an elaborate ceremony announcing the winners of the circuit, one by one, with balloons falling and music going off. It was a nice touch (albeit it was a video game from the 90s) that stuck with me some twenty years later, evidenced by my writing of it in this article (you’re welcome, Nintendo). The way you manipulate speed in the design of your website or native application can have profound, positive results.
Understanding how your website works under the hood, beyond the glitz and glamour, is so important and can save you loads of money and time (no pun intended) that it should never be an afterthought when designing a website or application. The process in identifying your weak spots can be a labour-intensive undertaking and require some technical know-how, but if it were easy it wouldn’t be fun. I encourage you to visit the links that are littered throughout this post (they are NOT clickbait, I promise) as they all will take you to great resources on the web containing information about this very topic. There is a wealth of knowledge out there that when equipped by the right mind, can really give your website or application a complete makeover in the speed and responsiveness departments. “For some reason business owners’ website speed seems like a strange thing to worry about. What I can tell you though is that your website speed affects every metric that you care about. Search engine ranking, bounce rate, conversions, user retention, and most importantly your revenue (Syed Balkhi).” If that doesn’t make you want to care about website speed then you’re out of luck (and likely more than that).