Journal tags: technical

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Performance and people

I was helping a client with a bit of a performance audit this week. I really, really enjoy this work. It’s such a nice opportunity to get my hands in the soil of a website, so to speak, and suggest changes that will have a measurable effect on the user’s experience.

Not only is web performance a user experience issue, it may well be the user experience issue. Page speed has a proven demonstrable direct effect on user experience (and revenue and customer satisfaction and whatever other metrics you’re using).

It struck me that there’s a continuum of performance challenges. On one end of the continuum, you’ve got technical issues. These can be solved with technical solutions. On the other end of the continuum, you’ve got human issues. These can be solved with discussions, agreement, empathy, and conversations (often dreaded or awkward).

I think that, as developers, we tend to gravitate towards the technical issues. That’s our safe space. But I suspect that bigger gains can be reaped by tackling the uncomfortable human issues.

This week, for example, I uncovered three performance issues. One was definitely technical. One was definitely human. One was halfway between.

The technical issue was with web fonts. It’s a lot of fun to dive into this aspect of web performance because quite often there’s some low-hanging fruit: a relatively simple technical fix that will boost the performance (or perceived performance) of a website. That might be through resource hints (using link rel=“preload” in the HTML) or adjusting the font loading (using font-display in the CSS) or even nerdier stuff like subsetting.

In this case, the issue was with the file format of the font itself. By switching to woff2, there were significant file size savings. And the great thing is that @font-face rules allow you to specify multiple file formats so you can still support older browsers that can’t handle woff2. A win all ‘round!

The performance issue that was right in the middle of the technical/human continuum was with images. At first glance it looked like a similar issue to the fonts. Some images were being served in the wrong formats. When I say “wrong”, I guess I mean inappropriate. A photographic image, for example, is probably going to best served as a JPG rather than a PNG.

But unlike the fonts, the images weren’t in the direct control of the developers. These images were coming from a Content Management System. And while there’s a certain amount of processing you can do on the server, a human still makes the decision about what file format they’re uploading.

I’ve seen this happen at Clearleft. We launched an event site with lean performant code, but then someone uploaded an image that’s megabytes in size. The solution in that case wasn’t technical. We realised there was a knowledge gap around image file formats—which, let’s face it, is kind of a techy topic that most normal people shouldn’t be expected to know.

But it was extremely gratifying to see that people were genuinely interested in knowing a bit more about choosing the right format for the right image. I was able to provide a few rules of thumb and point to free software for converting images. It empowered those people to feel more confident using the Content Management System.

It was a similar situation with the client site I was looking at this week. Nobody is uploading oversized images in order to deliberately make the site slower. They probably don’t realise the difference that image formats can make. By having a discussion and giving them some pointers, they’ll have more knowledge and the site will be faster. Another win all ‘round!

At the other end of continuum was an issue that wasn’t technical. From a technical point of view, there was just one teeny weeny little script. But that little script is Google Tag Manager which then calls many, many other scripts that are not so teeny weeny. Third party scripts …the bane of web performance!

In retrospect, it seems unbelievable that third-party JavaScript is even possible. I mean, putting arbitrary code—that can then inject even more arbitrary code—onto your website? That seems like a security nightmare!

Remember when I did a countdown of the top four web performance challenges? At the number one spot is other people’s JavaScript.

Now one technical solution would be to remove the Google Tag Manager script. But that’s probably not very practical—you’ll probably just piss off some other department. That said, if you can’t find out which department was responsible for adding the Google Tag Manager script in the first place, it might we well be an option to remove it and then wait and see who complains. If no one notices it’s gone, job done!

More realistically, there’s someone who’s added that Google Tag Manager script for their own valid reasons. You’ll need to talk to them and understand their needs.

Again, as with images uploaded in a Content Management System, they may not be aware of the performance problems caused by third-party scripts. You could try throwing numbers at them, but I think you get better results by telling the story of performance.

Use tools like Request Map Generator to help them visualise the impact that third-party scripts are having. Talk to them. More importantly, listen to them. Find out why those scripts are being requested. What are the outcomes they’re working towards? Can you offer an alternative way of providing the data they need?

I think many of us developers are intimidated or apprehensive about approaching people to have those conversations. But it’s necessary. And in its own way, it can be as rewarding as tinkering with code. If the end result is a faster website, then the work is definitely worth doing—whether it’s technical work or people work.

Personally, I just really enjoy working on anything that will end up improving a website’s performance, and by extension, the user experience. If you fancy working with me on your site, you should get in touch with Clearleft.

Technical balance

Two technical editors worked with me on Going Offline.

Jake was one of the tech editors. He literally (co-)wrote the spec on service workers. There ain’t nuthin’ he don’t know about the code involved. His job was to catch any technical inaccuracies in my writing.

The other tech editor was Amber. She’s relatively new to web development. While I was writing the book, she had a solid grounding in HTML and CSS, but not much experience in JavaScript. That made her the perfect archetypal reader. Her job was to point out whenever I wasn’t explaining something clearly enough.

My job was to satisfy both of them. I needed to explain service workers and all its associated APIs. I also needed to make it approachable and understandable to people who haven’t dived deeply into JavaScript.

I deliberately didn’t wait until I was an expert in this topic before writing Going Offline. I knew that the more familiar I became with the ins-and-outs of getting a service worker up and running, the harder it would be for me to remember what it was like not to know that stuff. I figured the best way to avoid the curse of knowledge would be not to accrue too much of it. But then once I started researching and writing, I inevitably became more au fait with the topic. I had to try to battle against that, trying to keep a beginner’s mind.

My watchword was this great piece of advice from Codebar:

Assume that anyone you’re teaching has no knowledge but infinite intelligence.

It was tricky. I’m still not sure if I managed to pull off the balancing act, although early reports are very, very encouraging. You’ll be able to judge for yourself soon enough. The book is shipping at the start of next week. Get your order in now.

Code (p)reviews

I’m not a big fan of job titles. I’ve always had trouble defining what I do as a noun—I much prefer verbs (“I make websites” sounds fine, but “website maker” sounds kind of weird).

Mind you, the real issue is not finding the right words to describe what I do, but rather figuring out just what the heck it is that I actually do in the first place.

According to the Clearleft website, I’m a technical director. That doesn’t really say anything about what I do. To be honest, I tend to describe my work these days in terms of what I don’t do: I don’t tend to write a lot of HTML, CSS, and JavaScript on client projects (although I keep my hand in with internal projects, and of course, personal projects).

Instead, I try to make sure that the people doing the actual coding—Mark, Graham, and Danielle—are happy and have everything they need to get on with their work. From outside, it might look like my role is managerial, but I see it as the complete opposite. They’re not in service to me; I’m in service to them. If they’re not happy, I’m not doing my job.

There’s another aspect to this role of technical director, and it’s similar to the role of a creative director. Just as a creative director is responsible for the overall direction and quality of designs being produced, I have an oversight over the quality of front-end output. I don’t want to be a bottleneck in the process though, and to be honest, most of the time I don’t do much checking on the details of what’s being produced because I completely trust Mark, Graham, and Danielle to produce top quality code.

But I feel I should be doing more. Again, it’s not that I want to be a bottleneck where everything needs my approval before it gets delivered, but I hope that I could help improve everyone’s output.

Now the obvious way to do this is with code reviews. I do it a bit, but not nearly as much as I should. And even when I do, I always feel it’s a bit late to be spotting any issues. After all, the code has already been written. Also, who am I to try to review the code produced by people who are demonstrably better at coding than I am?

Instead I think it will be more useful for me to stick my oar in before a line of code has been written; to sit down with someone and talk through how they’re going to approach solving a particular problem, creating a particular pattern, or implementing a particular user story.

I suppose it’s really not that different to rubber ducking. Having someone to talk out loud with about potential solutions can be really valuable in my experience.

So I’m going to start doing more code previews. I think it will also incentivise me to do more code reviews—being involved in the initial discussion of a solution means I’m going to want to see the final result.

But I don’t think this should just apply to front-end code. I’d also like to exercise this role as technical director with the designers on a project.

All too often, decisions are made in the design phase that prove problematic in development. It usually works out okay, but it often means revisiting the designs in light of some technical considerations. I’d like to catch those issues sooner. That means sticking my nose in much earlier in the process, talking through what the designers are planning to do, and keeping an eye out for any potential issues.

So, as technical director, I won’t be giving feedback like “the colour’s not working for me” or “not sure about those type choices” (I’ll leave that to the creative director), but instead I can ask questions like “how will this work without hover?” or “what happens when the user does this?” as well as pointing out solutions that might be tricky or time-consuming to implement from a technical perspective.

What I want to avoid is the swoop’n’poop, when someone seagulls in after something has been designed or built and points out all the problems. The earlier in the process any potential issues can be spotted, the better.

And I think that’s my job.