Tags: speed

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Thursday, September 24th, 2020

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.

Monday, September 7th, 2020

Kokorobot — leanerweb

The problem is that most websites will adapt to the ever faster connections, which makes them gradually inaccessible for people with slower connections. Today, most websites are impossible to download with a dial-up connection, because they have become too corpulent.

This speaks to me:

Everything we do to make it harder to create a website or edit a web page, and harder to learn to code by viewing source, promotes that consumerist vision of the web.

Pretending that one needs a team of professionals to put simple articles online will become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Overcomplicating the web means lifting up the ladder that used to make it possible for people to teach themselves and surprise everyone with unexpected new ideas.

There’s a list of links at the end of this piece to help you reach this goal:

It is vital that the web stay participatory. That means not just making sites small enough so the whole world can visit them, but small enough so that people can learn to build their own, by example. Bloat makes the web inaccessible.

Wednesday, August 19th, 2020

radEventListener: a Tale of Client-side Framework Performance | CSS-Tricks

Excellent research by Jeremy Wagner comparing the performance impact of React, Preact, and vanilla JavaScript. The results are simultaneously shocking and entirely unsurprising.

Monday, July 27th, 2020

Is my host fast yet?

This is an interesting project to try to rank web hosts by performance:

Real-world server response (Time to First Byte) latencies, as experienced by real-world users navigating the web.

Monday, June 1st, 2020

The Need for Speed, 23 Years Later

If you’re in a group of people being chased by a bear, you only need to be faster than the slowest person in the group. But that’s not how websites work: being faster than at least one other website, or even faster than the ‘average’ website, is not a great achievement when the average website speed is frustratingly slow.

Friday, May 29th, 2020

Official Google Webmaster Central Blog: Evaluating page experience for a better web

This is excellent news for sites that were strong-armed into creating AMP pages just to get into the Top Stories carousel:

As part of this update, we’ll also incorporate the page experience metrics into our ranking criteria for the Top Stories feature in Search on mobile, and remove the AMP requirement from Top Stories eligibility.

This update doesn’t arrive until next year, but the message is clear: fast websites will be rewarded in search. I’ll be glad to see an end to AMP’s blackmail tactics.

Tuesday, May 5th, 2020

Is it time for a Web Performance rebrand? – Simon Hearne

I think Simon is onto something here. While the word “performance” means something amongst devs, it’s too vague to be useful when communicating with other disciplines. I like the idea of using the more descriptive “page speed” or “site speed” in those situations.

Web Performance and Web Performance Optimization are still valid and descriptive terms for our industry, but we might benefit from a change to our language when working with others. The language we use could be critical to the success of making the web a faster and more accessible place.

Tuesday, March 3rd, 2020

Telling the story of performance

At Clearleft, we’ve worked with quite a few clients on site redesigns. It’s always a fascinating process, particularly in the discovery phase. There’s that excitement of figuring out what’s currently working, what’s not working, and what’s missing completely.

The bulk of this early research phase is spent diving into the current offering. But it’s also the perfect time to do some competitor analysis—especially if we want some answers to the “what’s missing?” question.

It’s not all about missing features though. Execution is equally important. Our clients want to know how their users’ experience shapes up compared to the competition. And when it comes to user experience, performance is a huge factor. As Andy says, performance is a UX problem.

There’s no shortage of great tools out there for measuring (and monitoring) performance metrics, but they’re mostly aimed at developers. Quite rightly. Developers are the ones who can solve most performance issues. But that does make the tools somewhat impenetrable if you don’t speak the language of “time to first byte” and “first contentful paint”.

When we’re trying to show our clients the performance of their site—or their competitors—we need to tell a story.

Web Page Test is a terrific tool for measuring performance. It can also be used as a story-telling tool.

You can go to webpagetest.org/easy if you don’t need to tweak settings much beyond the typical site visit (slow 3G on mobile). Pop in your client’s URL and, when the test is done, you get a valuable but impenetrable waterfall chart. It’s not exactly the kind of thing I’d want to present to a client.

Fortunately there’s an attention-grabbing output from each test: video. Download the video of your client’s site loading. Then repeat the test with the URL of a competitor. Download that video too. Repeat for as many competitor URLs as you think appropriate.

Now take those videos and play them side by side. Presentation software like Keynote is perfect for showing multiple videos like this.

This is so much more effective than showing a table of numbers! Clients get to really feel the performance difference between their site and their competitors.

Running all those tests can take time though. But there are some other tools out there that can give a quick dose of performance information.

SpeedCurve recently unveiled Page Speed Benchmarks. You can compare the performance of sites within a particualar sector like travel, retail, or finance. By default, you’ll get a filmstrip view of all the sites loading side by side. Click through on each one and you can get the video too. It might take a little while to gather all those videos, but it’s quicker than using Web Page Test directly. And it might be that the filmstrip view is impactful enough for telling your performance story.

If, during your discovery phase, you find that performance is being badly affected by third-party scripts, you’ll need some way to communicate that. Request Map Generator is fantastic for telling that story in a striking visual way. Pop the URL in there and then take a screenshot of the resulting visualisation.

The beginning of a redesign project is also the time to take stock of current performance metrics so that you can compare the numbers after your redesign launches. Crux.run is really great for tracking performance over time. You won’t get any videos but you will get some very appealing charts and graphs.

Web Page Test, Page Speed Benchmarks, and Request Map Generator are great for telling the story of what’s happening with performance right nowCrux.run balances that with the story of performance over time.

Measuring performance is important. Communicating the story of performance is equally important.

Visitors, Developers, or Machines

Garrett’s observation is spot-on here:

I’ve been trying to understand the appeal of these frameworks by giving them an objective chance. I’ve expanded my knowledge of JavaScript and tried to give them the benefit of the doubt. They do have their places, but the only explanation I can come up with is that developers are taking a similar approach as Ruby and focusing on developer convenience and productivity. Only, instead of Ruby’s performance being tied to the CPU level, JavaScript frameworks push the performance burden to the client.

In both cases, the tradeoff happens in the name of developer happiness and productivity, but the strategies have entirely different consequences. With Ruby, the CPU is still (mostly) the responsibility of the development team, and it can be upgraded. With JavaScript, the page weight becomes an externality pushed onto visitors.

Friday, February 28th, 2020

Why 543 KB keep me up at night - Manuel Matuzović

How and when did I get to the point where I would consider a page weight of 4 MB on a large page and 500 KB on a small page normal?

This isn’t just a well-earned rant from Manuel. I mean, it *is that, but it’s also packed with practical performance advice.

Tuesday, February 25th, 2020

Reflections on software performance - Made of Bugs

I’ve really come to appreciate that performance isn’t just some property of a tool independent from its functionality or its feature set. Performance — in particular, being notably fast — is a feature in and of its own right, which fundamentally alters how a tool is used and perceived.

This is a fascinating look into how performance has knock-on effects beyond the obvious:

It’s probably fairly intuitive that users prefer faster software, and will have a better experience performing a given task if the tools are faster rather than slower.

What is perhaps less apparent is that having faster tools changes how users use a tool or perform a task.

This observation is particularly salient for web developers:

We have become accustomed to casually giving up factors of two or ten or more with our choices of tools and libraries, without asking if the benefits are worth it.

Monday, February 24th, 2020

Web bloat

Pages are often designed so that they’re hard or impossible to read if some dependency fails to load. On a slow connection, it’s quite common for at least one depedency to fail.

Fire up Reader Mode and read this excellent article informed by data from using a typically slow connection in rural USA today. Two findings are:

  1. A large fraction of the web is unusable on a bad connection. Even on a good (0% packetloss, no ping spike) dialup connection, some sites won’t load.
  2. Some sites will use a lot of data!

Saturday, February 15th, 2020

CrUX.RUN

This is so useful! Get instant results from Google’s Chrome User Experience Report without having to wait (or pay) for BigQuery.

Here’s an example of my site’s metrics over the last few months, complete with nice charts.

Friday, February 14th, 2020

Page Speed Benchmarks | SpeedCurve

This is going to be so useful for client work at Clearleft—instant snapshots of performance metrics across industries and regions!

For example, we’ve been working a lot with the travel sector, and now we can call up these benchmarks without having to generate a whole bunch of Web Page Test results ourselves.

See Tammy’s blog post for me details.

Thursday, February 6th, 2020

Innovation Can’t Keep the Web Fast | CSS-Tricks

I’ve come to accept that our current approach to remedy poor performance largely consists of engineering techniques that stem from the ill effects of our business, product management, and engineering practices. We’re good at applying tourniquets, but not so good at sewing up deep wounds.

It’s becoming increasingly clear that web performance isn’t solely an engineering problem, but a problem of people.

Monday, January 20th, 2020

Software disenchantment @ tonsky.me

I want to deliver working, stable things. To do that, we need to understand what we are building, in and out, and that’s impossible to do in bloated, over-engineered systems.

This pairs nicely with Craig’s post on fast software.

Everyone is busy building stuff for right now, today, rarely for tomorrow. But it would be nice to also have stuff that lasts a little longer than that.

I just got a new laptop and I decided to go with fresh installs rather than a migration. This really resonates:

It just seems that nobody is interested in building quality, fast, efficient, lasting, foundational stuff anymore. Even when efficient solutions have been known for ages, we still struggle with the same problems: package management, build systems, compilers, language design, IDEs.

Monday, January 13th, 2020

Smaller HTML Payloads with Service Workers — Philip Walton

This is a great progressive enhancement for performance that uses a service worker to combine reusable bits of a page with fresh content. The numbers are very convincing!

Alas, the code is using the Workbox library, but figuring out the vanilla code to write shouldn’t be too tricky seeing as Philip talks through his logic step by step.

Sunday, December 29th, 2019

Move Fast & Don’t Break Things | Filament Group, Inc.

This is the transcript of a brilliant presentation by Scott—read the whole thing! It starts with a much-needed history lesson that gets to where we are now with the dismal state of performance on the web, and then gives a whole truckload of handy tips and tricks for improving performance when it comes to styles, scripts, images, fonts, and just about everything on the front end.

Essential!

Saturday, December 14th, 2019

Monday, December 2nd, 2019

Six Web Performance Technologies to Watch in 2020 – Simon Hearne

The inexorable rise of frameworks such as Angular, React, Vue and their many cousins has been led by an assumption that managing state in the browser is quicker than a request to a server. This assumption, I can only assume, is made by developers who have flagship mobile devices or primarily work on desktop devices.