Tags: work

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Thursday, September 20th, 2018

A framework for web performance

Here at Clearleft, we’ve recently been doing some front-end consultancy. That prompted me to jot down thoughts on design principles and performance:

We continued with some more performance work this week. Having already covered some of the nitty-gritty performance tactics like font-loading, image optimisation, etc., we wanted to take a step back and formulate an ongoing strategy for performance.

When it comes to web performance, the eternal question is “What should we measure?” The answer to that question will determine where you then concentrate your efforts—whatever it is your measuring, that’s what you’ll be looking to improve.

I started by drawing a distinction between measurements of quantities and measurements of time. Quantities are quite easy to measure. You can measure these quantities using nothing more than browser dev tools:

  • overall file size (page weight + assets), and
  • number of requests.

I think it’s good to measure these quantities, and I think it’s good to have a performance budget for them. But I also think they’re table stakes. They don’t actually tell you much about the impact that performance is having on the user experience. For that, we need to enumerate moments in time:

  • time to first byte,
  • time to first render,
  • time to first meaningful paint, and
  • time to first meaningful interaction.

There’s one more moment in time, which is the time until DOM content is loaded. But I’m not sure that has a direct effect on how performance is perceived, so it feels like it belongs more in the category of quantities than time.

Next, we listed out all the factors that could affect each of the moments in time. For example, the time to first byte depends on the speed of the network that the user is on. It also depends on how speedily your server (or Content Delivery Network) can return a response. Meanwhile, time to first render is affected by the speed of the user’s network, but it’s also affected by how many blocking elements are on the critical path.

By listing all the factors out, we can draw a distinction between the factors that are outside of our control, and the factors that we can do something about. So while we might not be able to do anything about the speed of the user’s network, we might well be able to optimise the speed at which our server returns a response, or we might be able to defer some assets that are currently blocking the critical path.

Factors
1st byte
  • server speed
  • network speed
1st render
  • network speed
  • critical path assets
1st meaningful paint
  • network speed
  • font-loading strategy
  • image optimisation
1st meaningful interaction
  • network speed
  • device processing power
  • JavaScript size

So far, everything in our list of performance-affecting factors is related to the first visit. It’s worth drawing up a second list to document all the factors for subsequent visits. This will look the same as the list for first visits, but with the crucial difference that caching now becomes a factor.

First visit factors Repeat visit factors
1st byte
  • server speed
  • network speed
  • server speed
  • network speed
  • caching
1st render
  • network speed
  • critical path assets
  • network speed
  • critical path assets
  • caching
1st meaningful paint
  • network speed
  • font-loading strategy
  • image optimisation
  • network speed
  • font-loading strategy
  • image optimisation
  • caching
1st meaningful interaction
  • network speed
  • device processing power
  • JavaScript size
  • network speed
  • device processing power
  • JavaScript size
  • caching

Alright. Now it’s time to get some numbers for each of the four moments in time. I use Web Page Test for this. Choose a realistic setting, like 3G on an Android from the East coast of the USA. Under advanced settings, be sure to select “First View and Repeat View” so that you can put those numbers in two different columns.

Here are some numbers for adactio.com:

First visit time Repeat visit time
1st byte 1.476 seconds 1.215 seconds
1st render 2.633 seconds 1.930 seconds
1st meaningful paint 2.633 seconds 1.930 seconds
1st meaningful interaction 2.868 seconds 2.083 seconds

I’m getting the same numbers for first render as first meaningful paint. That tells me that there’s no point in trying to optimise my font-loading, for example …which makes total sense, because adactio.com isn’t using any web fonts. But on a different site, you might see a big gap between those numbers.

I am seeing a gap between time to first byte and time to first render. That tells me that I might be able to get some blocking requests off the critical path. Sure enough, I’m currently referencing an external stylesheet in the head of adactio.com—if I were to inline critical styles and defer the loading of that stylesheet, I should be able to narrow that gap.

A straightforward site like adactio.com isn’t going to have much to worry about when it comes to the time to first meaningful interaction, but on other sites, this can be a significant bottleneck. If you’re sending UI elements in the initial HTML, but then waiting for JavaScript to “hydrate” those elements into working, the user can end up in an uncanny valley of tapping on page elements that look fine, but aren’t ready yet.

My point is, you’re going to see very different distributions of numbers depending on the kind of site you’re testing. There’s no one-size-fits-all metric to focus on.

Now that you’ve got numbers for how your site is currently performing, you can create two new columns: one of those is a list of first-visit targets, the other is a list of repeat-visit targets for each moment in time. Try to keep them realistic.

For example, if I could reduce the time to first render on adactio.com by 0.5 seconds, my goals would look like this:

First visit goal Repeat visit goal
1st byte 1.476 seconds 1.215 seconds
1st render 2.133 seconds 1.430 seconds
1st meaningful paint 2.133 seconds 1.430 seconds
1st meaningful interaction 2.368 seconds 1.583 seconds

See how the 0.5 seconds saving cascades down into the other numbers?

Alright! Now I’ve got something to aim for. It might also be worth having an extra column to record which of the moments in time are high priority, which are medium priority, and which are low priority.

Priority
1st byte Medium
1st render High
1st meaningful paint Low
1st meaningful interaction Low

Your goals and priorities may be quite different.

I think this is a fairly useful framework for figuring out where to focus when it comes to web performance. If you’d like to give it a go, I’ve made a web performance chart for you to print out and fill in. Here’s a PDF version if that’s easier for printing. Or you can download the HTML version if you want to edit it.

I have to say, I’m really enjoying the front-end consultancy work we’ve been doing at Clearleft around performance and related technologies, like offline functionality. I’d like to do more of it. If you’d like some help in prioritising performance at your company, please get in touch. Let’s make the web faster together.

Friday, September 14th, 2018

CSS dismissal is about exclusion, not technology

As a community, we love to talk about meritocracy while perpetuating privilege.

This is playing out in full force in the front-end development community today.

Front-end development is a part of the field that has historically been at least slightly more accessible to women.

Shockingly, (not!) this also led to a salary and prestige gap, with back-end developers making on average almost $30,000 more than front-end.

(Don’t read the comments.)

Saturday, September 1st, 2018

Offline Content with Service Worker — Chris Ruppel

A step-by-step walkthrough of a really useful service worker pattern: allowing users to save articles for offline reading at the click of a button (kind of like adding the functionality of Instapaper or Pocket to your own site).

The Emperor’s New Tools?: pragmatism and the idolatry of the web | words from Cole Henley, @cole007

I share many of Cole’s concerns. I think we’re in fairly similiar situations. We even share the same job title: Technical Director …whatever that even means.

I worry about our over-reliance and obsession with tools because for many these are a barrier to our discipline. I worry that they may never really make our work better, faster or easier and that our attention is increasingly focussed not on the drawing but on the pencils. But I mostly worry that our current preoccupation with the way we work (rather than necessarily what we work on) is sapping my enthusiasm for an industry I love and care about immensely.

Thursday, August 30th, 2018

Offline Web Experiences with Jeremy Keith « CTRL+CLICK CAST

I had a great time chatting with Lea and Emily about service workers on this episode of their podcast—they’re such great hosts!

Here’s the huffduffed audio.

Tuesday, August 21st, 2018

The Web I Want - DEV Community 👩‍💻👨‍💻

Scores of people who just want to deliver their content and have it look vaguely nice are convinced you need every web technology under the sun to deliver text.

This is very lawnoffgetting but I can relate.

I made my first website about 20 years ago and it delivered as much content as most websites today. It was more accessible, ran faster and easier to develop then 90% of the stuff you’ll read on here.

20 years later I browse the Internet with a few tabs open and I have somehow downloaded many megabytes of data, my laptop is on fire and yet in terms of actual content delivery nothing has really changed.

Monday, August 20th, 2018

How can designers get better at learning from their mistakes?

Jon has seven answers:

  1. Build a culture to learn from mistakes
  2. Embrace healthy critique
  3. Fail little and often
  4. Listen to users
  5. Design. Learn. Repeat
  6. Create a shared understanding
  7. Always be accountable

It’s gratifying to see how much of this was informed by the culture of critique at Clearleft.

Thursday, August 16th, 2018

Going Offline by Jeremy Keith – a post by Marc Thiele

This is such a lovely, lovely review from Marc!

Jeremy’s way of writing certainly helps, as a specialised or technical book on a topic like Service Workers, could certainly be one, that bores you to death with dry written explanations. But Jeremy has a friendly, fresh and entertaining way of writing books. Sometimes I caught myself with a grin on my face…

Tuesday, August 14th, 2018

005: Service workers - Web Components Club

I strongly recommend that you read Going Offline by Jeremy Keith. Before his book, I found the concept of service workers quite daunting and convinced myself that it’s one of those things that I’ll have to set aside a big chunk of time to learn. I got through Jeremy’s book in a few hours and felt confident and inspired. This is because he’s very good at explaining concepts in a friendly, concise manner.

Monday, August 13th, 2018

The power of progressive enhancement – No Divide – Medium

The beauty of this approach is that the site doesn’t ever appear broken and the user won’t even be aware that they are getting the ‘default’ experience. With progressive enhancement, every user has their own experience of the site, rather than an experience that the designers and developers demand of them.

A case study in applying progressive enhancement to all aspects of a site.

Progressive enhancement isn’t necessarily more work and it certainly isn’t a non-JavaScript fallback, it’s a change in how we think about our projects. A complete mindset change is required here and it starts by remembering that you don’t build websites for yourself, you build them for others.

Friday, August 10th, 2018

“Designer + Developer Workflow,” an article by Dan Mall

Dan compares the relationship between a designer and developer in the web world to the relationship between an art director and a copywriter in the ad world. He and Brad made a video to demonstrate how they collaborate.

PWA: Progressive Web All-the-things - Tales of a Developer Advocate by Paul Kinlan

Very valuable observations from Paul on his travels, talking to developers and business people about progressive web apps—there’s some confusion out there.

My personal feeling is that everyone is really hung up on the A in PWA: ‘App’. It’s the success and failure of the branding of the concept; ‘App’ is in the name, ‘App’ is in the conscious of many users and businesses and so the associations are quite clear.

Tuesday, August 7th, 2018

Console methods

Whenever I create a fetch event inside a service worker, my code roughly follows the same pattern. There’s a then clause which gets executed if the fetch is successful, and a catch clause in case anything goes wrong:

fetch( request)
.then( fetchResponse => {
    // Yay! It worked.
})
.catch( fetchError => {
    // Boo! It failed.
});

In my book—Going Offline—I’m at pains to point out that those arguments being passed into each clause are yours to name. In this example I’ve called them fetchResponse and fetchError but you can call them anything you want.

I always do something with the fetchResponse inside the then clause—either I want to return the response or put it in a cache.

But I rarely do anything with fetchError. Because of that, I’ve sometimes made the mistake of leaving it out completely:

fetch( request)
.then( fetchResponse => {
    // Yay! It worked.
})
.catch( () => {
    // Boo! It failed.
});

Don’t do that. I think there’s some talk of making the error argument optional, but for now, some browsers will get upset if it’s not there.

So always include that argument, whether you call it fetchError or anything else. And seeing as it’s an error, this might be a legitimate case for outputing it to the browser’s console, even in production code.

And yes, you can output to the console from a service worker. Even though a service worker can’t access anything relating to the document object, you can still make use of window.console, known to its friends as console for short.

My muscle memory when it comes to sending something to the console is to use console.log:

fetch( request)
.then( fetchResponse => {
    return fetchResponse;
})
.catch( fetchError => {
    console.log(fetchError);
});

But in this case, the console.error method is more appropriate:

fetch( request)
.then( fetchResponse => {
    return fetchResponse;
})
.catch( fetchError => {
    console.error(fetchError);
});

Now when there’s a connectivity problem, anyone with a console window open will see the error displayed bold and red.

If that seems a bit strident to you, there’s always console.warn which will still make the output stand out, but without being quite so alarmist:

fetch( request)
.then( fetchResponse => {
    return fetchResponse;
})
.catch( fetchError => {
    console.warn(fetchError);
});

That said, in this case, console.error feels like the right choice. After all, it is technically an error.

Securing Web Sites Made Them Less Accessible – Eric’s Archived Thoughts

This is a heartbreaking observation by Eric. He’s not anti-HTTPS by any stretch, but he is pointing out that caching servers become a thing of the past on a more secure web.

Can we do anything? For users of up-to-date browsers, yes: service workers create a “good” man in the middle that sidesteps the HTTPS problem, so far as I understand. So if you’re serving content over HTTPS, creating a service worker should be one of your top priorities right now, even if it’s just to do straightforward local caching and nothing fancier.

The Web is Made of Edge Cases by Taylor Hunt on CodePen

Oh, this is magnificent! A rallying call for everyone designing and developing on the web to avoid making any assumptions about the people we’re building for:

People will use your site how they want, and according to their means. That is wonderful, and why the Web was built.

I would even say that the % of people viewing your site the way you do rapidly approaches zilch.

Seriously, though. What is a progressive web app? – Amberley Romo – Medium

What an excellent question! And what an excellent bit of sleuthing to get to the bottom of it. This is like linguistic spelunking on the World Wide Web.

Oh, and of course I love the little sidenote at the end.

Thursday, August 2nd, 2018

Dynamic resources using the Network Information API and service workers

Smart thinking—similar to this post from last year—about using the navigator.connection API from a service worker to serve up bandwidth-appropriate images.

This is giving me some ideas for my own site.

Tuesday, July 24th, 2018

Altering expectations

Luke has written up the selection process he went through when Clearleft was designing the Virgin Holidays app. When it comes to deploying on mobile, there were three options:

  1. Native apps
  2. A progressive web app
  3. A hybrid app

The Virgin Holidays team went with that third option.

Now, it will come as no surprise that I’m a big fan of the second option: building a progressive web app (or turning an existing site into a progressive web app). I think a progressive web app is a great solution for travel apps, and the use-case that Luke describes sounds perfect:

Easy access to resort staff and holiday details that could be viewed offline to help as many customers as possible travel without stress and enjoy a fantastic holiday

Luke explains why they choice not to go with a progressive web app.

The current level of support and leap in understanding meant we’d risk alienating many of our customers.

The issue of support is one that is largely fixed at this point. When Clearleft was working on the Virgin Holidays app, service workers hadn’t landed in iOS. Hence, the risk of alienating a lot of customers. But now that Mobile Safari has offline capabilities, that’s no longer a problem.

But it’s the second reason that’s trickier:

Simply put, customers already expected to find us in the App Store and are familiar with what apps can historically offer over websites.

I think this is the biggest challenge facing progressive web apps: battling expectations.

For over a decade, people have formed ideas about what to expect from the web and what to expect from native. From a technical perspective, native and web have become closer and closer in capabilities. But people’s expectations move slower than technological changes.

First of all, there’s the whole issue of discovery: will people understand that they can “install” a website and expect it to behave exactly like a native app? This is where install prompts and ambient badging come in. I think ambient badging is the way to go, but it’s still a tricky concept to explain to people.

But there’s another way of looking at the current situation. Instead of seeing people’s expectations as a negative factor, maybe it’s an opportunity. There’s an opportunity right now for companies to be as groundbreaking and trendsetting as Wired.com when it switched to CSS for layout, or The Boston Globe when it launched its responsive site.

It makes for a great story. Just look at the Pinterest progressive web app for an example (skip to the end to get to the numbers):

Weekly active users on mobile web have increased 103 percent year-over-year overall, with a 156 percent increase in Brazil and 312 percent increase in India. On the engagement side, session length increased by 296 percent, the number of Pins seen increased by 401 percent and people were 295 percent more likely to save a Pin to a board. Those are amazing in and of themselves, but the growth front is where things really shined. Logins increased by 370 percent and new signups increased by 843 percent year-over-year. Since we shipped the new experience, mobile web has become the top platform for new signups. And for fun, in less than 6 months since fully shipping, we already have 800 thousand weekly users using our PWA like a native app (from their homescreen).

Now admittedly their previous mobile web experience was a dreadful doorslam, but still, those are some amazing statistics!

Maybe we’re underestimating the malleability of people’s expectations when it comes to the web on mobile. Perhaps the inertia we think we’re battling against isn’t such a problem as long as we give people a fast, reliable, engaging experience.

If you build that, they will come.

Friday, July 20th, 2018

Industry Fatigue by Jordan Moore

There are of course things worth your time and deep consideration, and there are distractions. Profound new thinking and movements within our industry - the kind that fundamentally shifts the way we work in a positive new direction are worth your time and attention. Other things are distractions. I put new industry gossip, frameworks, software and tools firmly in the distractions category. This is the sort of content that exists in the padding between big movements. It’s the kind of stuff that doesn’t break new ground and it doesn’t make or break your ability to do your job.

What walls are for – disambiguity

Digital things look ‘finished’ too soon. When something is a work in progress on a wall, it looks unfinished, so you keep working on it. moving things around, reshaping things, connecting things, erasing things, and making them again. Walls make it easier to iterate. Iteration, in my opinion, is massively correlated with quality.