February 23, 2016

Making Our Sites Faster, Part 1: Performance Matters

This is the first post in a 4-part series discussing performance on the GeorgiaGov platform.

In case you missed my previous post, I explained our methodology behind selecting enhancements for the GeorgiaGov web platform. In this series, I want to focus on our efforts to make our sites faster across devices and connection types.

I’m going to take an educated guess that as you read this post, you’re sitting in your office, where you view this and any other website from your fast network connection on your work computer. I say that not because this is the way most people interact with websites — I say this because it’s the way most people who have office jobs interact with work-related websites.

If you maintain a state agency website on our GeorgiaGov web platform as part of your job, you are, again, most likely accessing and viewing that site on a fast network connection from your computer. The pages load quickly and you don’t give performance - how quickly those pages load for users — a second thought. This is a pretty typical oversight for those of us in the web industry. We use fast connections, modern browsers, and fancy phones because it’s part of what’s needed to do our jobs well. But the flipside is that it’s easy to assume that everyone interacting with your websites will have the same experiences you do - but that couldn’t be further from the truth.

Why Performance Matters

While you are adding content to your website from a computer, about 40% of the visitors to your site are accessing that content from a mobile device*. But don’t equate “mobile device” to “new iPhone on a fast Wi-Fi connection” because that very well may not be the case. Users are accessing government sites and services on a wide variety of mobile devices, and they’re just as likely to be on a slow wireless network with an old, quirky phone as they are to be on a fancy new iPhone with a fast connection. Users living in rural areas don’t always have access to broadband internet - and constituents who live in areas that offer broadband connections can’t always afford them.

My point is that long page load times can be a problem that we — the builders, designers, content managers, and maintainers of any web platform — don’t often experience, and so we may not even be aware of the problem. But it affects many of your users.

In fact, in a recent study, the Pew Research Center found that more Americans are dropping their broadband service and relying solely on smartphones to access the internet — use of home broadband service is down 3% in just two years, with signs pointing to a continued dip in broadband web access.

The report points out that:

Those who are “smartphone-dependent” for access do encounter distinct challenges. Previous Pew Research Center findings show that they are more likely than other users to run up against data-cap limits that often accompany smartphone service plans.

What does this mean for us? It means the size of your web pages, and the time it takes them to load affects whether or not many constituents can access your information.

Fast Page Loads for All

In writing about accessibility, I stress the importance of making websites accessible to users regardless of ability. The same is true of making websites available to users regardless of their level of access to technical resources. Responsive web design considers that visitors will be accessing your website on a variety of screen sizes, but unless care is taken with how images, JavaScript, video, and other functionality are also served up on the site, it’s missing a big part of the mobile experience - overall page size, and how that page size impacts the time it takes for a page to load (and how much of a user’s monthly data plan it’s eating up in the process).

Usability experts have extensively studied the patience website visitors have with a website — and they have found that if a page takes 1 second to load, visitors start to think about something else, losing interest in your content. Somewhere between 1 second and 10 seconds, those users will bail altogether. If those visitors leave your website because it’s loading too slowly on their phone or internet connection, will this translate to extra phone calls to your agency? Or will those users who feel that they can’t access the information they need just give up, reinforcing a common sentiment that government doesn’t serve them?

Be Considerate

How then, do we best serve our constituents, as good stewards of our state’s websites? We focus on designing and building websites that favor quick page loads over fancy features. We ditch the fluff your users don’t come to the site for anyway, and we work on improving the way we serve up the information they came for.

In a nutshell, making performance-based improvements is considerate web design. Considerate of your users’ time. Considerate of their data caps. It’s “the right thing to do” design. It also means cost savings for you and stronger brand appreciation from your visitors, but that’s just icing on the cake, right?

Now that we’ve covered the importance of lean, fast-loading websites, I’m sure you’re dying to know how our platform — and our agency websites — measure up. In my next post I’ll go into detail on how we’re doing and how we compare to sites that serve similar purposes. If you just can’t wait that long, you can run page load tests on any web page at www.webpagetest.org.

Until then, just be considerate, y’all.

* Jan 2016 rollup report of all GeorgiaGov platform traffic shows an average 40.26% of traffic is mobile.

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