Another alternative to Google Analytics—nice and lightweight too!
Thursday, November 12th, 2020
Thursday, October 29th, 2020
Thursday, October 8th, 2020
Tess calls for more precise language—like “site” and “origin”—when talking about browsers and resources:
When talking about web features with security or privacy impact, folks often talk about “first parties” and “third parties”. Everyone sort of knows what we mean when we use these terms, but it turns out that we often mean different things, and what we each think these terms mean usually doesn’t map cleanly onto the technical mechanisms browsers actually use to distinguish different actors for security or privacy purposes.
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!
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.
Wednesday, September 23rd, 2020
This is an excellent new tool for showing exactly what kind of tracking a site is doing:
Who is peeking over your shoulder while you work, watch videos, learn, explore, and shop on the internet? Enter the address of any website, and Blacklight will scan it and reveal the specific user-tracking technologies on the site—and who’s getting your data. You may be surprised at what you learn.
Best of all, you can inspect the raw data and analyse the methodology.
There are some accompanying explainers:
Saturday, December 14th, 2019
Thursday, November 21st, 2019
Surveillance giants: How the business model of Google and Facebook threatens human rights | Amnesty International
Amnesty International have released a PDF report on the out-of-control surveillance perpetrated by Google and Facebook:
Google and Facebook’s platforms come at a systemic cost. The companies’ surveillance-based business model forces people to make a Faustian bargain, whereby they are only able to enjoy their human rights online by submitting to a system predicated on human rights abuse. Firstly, an assault on the right to privacy on an unprecedented scale, and then a series of knock-on effects that pose a serious risk to a range of other rights, from freedom of expression and opinion, to freedom of thought and the right to non-discrimination.
This page on the Amnesty International website has six tracking scripts. Also, consent to accept tracking cookies is assumed (check dev tools). It looks like you can reject marketing cookies, but I tried that without any success.
The stone PDF has been thrown from a very badly-performing glass house.
Wednesday, October 2nd, 2019
This is good news. I have third-party cookies disabled in my browser, and I’m very happy that it will become the default.
It’s hard to believe that we ever allowed third-party cookies and scripts in the first place. Between them, they’re responsible for the worst ills of the World Wide Web.
Friday, September 13th, 2019
The Jevons Paradox in action:
Even if folks are on a new fast network, they’re very likely choking on the code we’re sending, rendering the potential speed improvements of 5G moot.
The longer I spend in this field, the more convinced I am that web performance is not a technical problem; it’s a people problem.
Tuesday, September 10th, 2019
You pop in a URL, it fetches the page and maps out all the subsequent requests in a nifty interactive diagram of circles, showing how many requests third-party scripts are themselves generating. I’ve found it to be a very effective way of showing the impact of third-party scripts to people who aren’t interested in looking at waterfall diagrams.
I was wondering… Wouldn’t it be great if this were built into browsers?
We already have a “Network” tab in our developer tools. The purpose of this tab is to show requests coming in. The browser already has all the information it needs to make a diagram of requests in the same that the request map generator does.
In Firefox, there’s a little clock icon in the bottom left corner of the “Network” tab. Clicking that shows a pie-chart view of requests. That’s useful, but I’d love it if there were the option to also see the connected circles that the request map generator shows.
Just a thought.
Friday, August 23rd, 2019
Harry enumerates the reasons why client-side A/B testing is terrible:
- It typically blocks rendering.
- Providers are almost always off-site.
- It happens on every page load.
- No user-benefitting reuse.
- They likely skip any governance process.
While your engineers are subject to linting, code-reviews, tests, auditors, and more, your marketing team have free rein of the front-end.
Monday, June 3rd, 2019
Trust no one! Harry enumerates the reason why you should be self-hosting your assets (and busts some myths along the way).
There really is very little reason to leave your static assets on anyone else’s infrastructure. The perceived benefits are often a myth, and even if they weren’t, the trade-offs simply aren’t worth it. Loading assets from multiple origins is demonstrably slower.
Tuesday, May 7th, 2019
This is a very useful new feature in Calibre, the performance monitoring tool. Now you can get data about just how much third-party scripts are affecting your site’s performance:
The best way of circumventing fear and anxiety around third party script performance is to capture metrics that clearly articulate their performance impact.
Monday, March 18th, 2019
A handy browser extension for Chrome and Firefox:
“Hello, Goodbye” blocks every chat or helpdesk pop up in your browser.
Thursday, September 20th, 2018
I am having a hard time seeing the business benefits weighing in more than the user cost (at least for those many organisations out there who rarely ever put that data to proper use). After all, keeping the costs low for the user should be in the core interest of the business as well.
Friday, September 14th, 2018
Weighing up the pros and cons of adding tracking scripts to a website, from a business perspective and from a user perspective.
When looking at the costs versus the benefits it is hard to believe that almost every website is using tracking scripts.
The next time, you implement a tracking script it would be great if you could rethink it and ask yourself if it is really worth it.
Wednesday, September 12th, 2018
Tuesday, September 11th, 2018
The top four web performance challenges
Danielle and I have been doing some front-end consultancy for a local client recently.
We’ve both been enjoying it a lot—it’s exhausting but rewarding work. So if you’d like us to come in and spend a few days with your company’s dev team, please get in touch.
I’ve certainly enjoyed the opportunity to watch Danielle in action, leading a workshop on refactoring React components in a pattern library. She’s incredibly knowledgable in that area.
This recent work was what prompted my thoughts around the principles of robustness and least power. We spent a day evaluating a continuum of related front-end concerns: semantics, accessibility, performance, and SEO.
When it came to performance, a lot of the work was around figuring out the most suitable metric to prioritise:
- time to first byte,
- time to first render,
- time to first meaningful paint, or
- time to first meaningful interaction.
And that doesn’t even cover the more easily-measurable numbers like:
- overall file size,
- number of requests, or
- pagespeed insights score.
One outcome was to realise that there’s a tendency (in performance, accessibility, or SEO) to focus on what’s easily measureable, not because it’s necessarily what matters, but precisely because it is easy to measure.
Then we got down to some nuts’n’bolts technology decisions. I took a step back and looked at the state of performance across the web. I thought it would be fun to rank the most troublesome technologies in order of tricksiness. I came up with a top four list.
Here we go, counting down from four to the number one spot…
4. Web fonts
Coming in at number four, it’s web fonts. Sometimes it’s the combined weight of multiple font files that’s the problem, but more often that not, it’s the perceived performance that suffers (mostly because of when the web fonts appear).
Fortunately there’s a straightforward question to ask in this situation: WWZD—What Would Zach Do?
At the number three spot, it’s images. There are more of them and they just seem to be getting bigger all the time. And yet, we have more tools at our disposal than ever—better file formats, and excellent browser support for responsive images. Heck, we’re even getting the ability to lazy load images in HTML now.
So, as with web fonts, it feels like the impact of images on performance can be handled, as long as you give them some time and attention.
At number one with a bullet, it’s all the crap that someone else tells us to put on our websites. Analytics. Ads. Trackers. Beacons. “It’s just one little script”, they say. And then that one little script calls in another, and another, and another.
Here’s the really annoying thing: when I go to performance conferences, or participate in performance discussions, you know who’s nowhere to be found? The people making those third-party scripts.
The narrative around front-end performance is that it’s up to us developers to take responsibility for how our websites perform. But by far the biggest performance impact comes from third-party scripts.
There is a solution to this, but it’s not a technical one. We could refuse to add overweight (and in many cases, unethical) third-party scripts to the sites we build.
I have many, many issues with Google’s AMP project, but I completely acknowledge that it solves a political problem:
But how can we take that lesson from AMP and apply it to all our web pages? If we simply refuse to be the one to add those third-party scripts, we get fired, and somebody else comes in who is willing to poison web pages with third-party scripts. There’s nothing to stop companies doing that.
Suppose we were to all make a pact that we would stand in solidarity with any of our fellow developers in that sort of situation. A sort of joining-together. A union, if you will.
There is power in a factory, power in the land, power in the hands of the worker, but it all amounts to nothing if together we don’t stand.
Saturday, September 1st, 2018
This is excellent news from Mozilla. Firefox is going to make it easier to block vampiric privacy-leeching and performance-draining third-party scripts and trackers.
In the physical world, users wouldn’t expect hundreds of vendors to follow them from store to store, spying on the products they look at or purchase. Users have the same expectations of privacy on the web, and yet in reality, they are tracked wherever they go.
Thursday, July 19th, 2018
I’m a fan of fast websites. Your website needs to be fast. Our collective excuses, hand-wringing, and inability to come to terms with the problem-set (There is too much script) and solutions (Use less script) of modern web development is getting tired.
I agree with every word of this.
Sadly, I think the one company with a browser that has marketshare dominance and could exert the kind of pressure required to stop ad tracking and surveillance capitalism is not incentivized to do so.
So the problem is approached from the other end. Blame is piled on authors for slow first-party code. We’re told to use certain mobile publishing frameworks that syndicate to proprietary CDNs to appease the gods of luck and fortune.