Ben Chinn

Slightly nerdy ramblings and linkage


Earlier today I tweeted:

Much faster mobile Safari is perhaps the new “feature” of iOS 5 I appreciate the most.

Even with all the great new features of the new iOS this simple enhancement has proven to be the most valuable to me. Well made pages load much faster, often almost instantaneously on a good wifi network, finally catching up to the kind of performance I’m used to when browsing the web on a Mac. This made me realize how crucial speed is to the user experience.

The Analog Experience

The digital world has always had this drawback in relation to analog tools that we use. With computers you often have to wait for machines to start up, applications to load, files to be transferred, etc. Analog tools don’t have this problem. Keys on the typewriter activate immediately when you hit them. There’s no lag when you pick up a piece of paper from your desk and throw it in the trash. Even when analog tasks take time you can easily see how the task is progressing and how long it will take to finish. Digital progress bars can give you an idea of the quantitative amount of time is remaining to complete a task but almost never communicate the quality of that progress. All this is a major weakness of digital tools.

Only One Solution

All the progress bars, status messages and other mitigating interfaces won’t really make slow responses much more bearable. The only solution is to make processes faster. Apple keeps doing this with every hardware and software interaction. New macs and iOS devices include faster processors and, more impressively, new OS releases often run faster than their predecessors even on the same hardware.

The World Wide Wait

Once upon a time the speed of loading web pages was a joke. I’m old enough to remember waiting what seemed like several minutes for pages to load, especially if they contained images of decent resolution. You didn’t surf the web so much as wade through it. That situation largely disappeared when broadband became more available and affordable and penetration of high speed internet connections has dovetailed with increased internet usage all over the world.

Still, performance continues to be an issue on the web as faster download speeds seem to give permission to create sites with bigger images, more scripts and other bandwidth hogs. All this even as research shows that slow sites cause users stress and Ecommerce sites lose money for every extra half second it takes to load pages.

If load speed is so important then why is it so often disregarded? One problem is that those responsible for maintaining a site’s performance (usually IT or engineering) are not the same as the people who are creating site content (design, marketing, etc.) This means that performance issues are usually only addressed after the elements of a site responsible for slowest loading down are already in place. The obvious counterexample is Google, for whom performance is a fundamental design principle.

You’re no fun any more

So should all websites be like Google, vanilla white expanses of data undifferentied by any sense of style? Should we just go back to 1997 in terms of the designs and technology we can bring to bear? Of course not. Perhaps we can all just be more mindful of what our audience is actually experiencing on the web and not just how the design looks in Photoshop or how to maximize ad revenue. Otherwise that audience will find their own way to consume your content faster and more pleasurably. There’s a balance to be struck but I would say that for the most part faster is better.