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The way we access the internet is shifting fast. This change is good: It has dragged me and many other designers back to desktops creaking under the weight of conservative ideas that need cleaning out.

Still, despite good intents and considerable efforts, many websites end up overloaded with graphics.

This post must start with a confession: My sins are many, embarrassing, and colourful. They also, in this case, weigh in at several gigabytes.

Early in my web design career, in the mid-1990s, the wow-factor guided the industry. Nothing was forbidden, and all gloves were off. Extravagance overruled usability at every turn. Among my offenses count full-screen slide shows, decorative pictures occupying every pixel, and menus so small and complex one could get forever lost in them.

A few of my efforts were good, but in hindsight I must have left many users confused. Some were probably left in tears. My only relief is that in the 1990s, there were almost no mobile Internet users. While many web design standards back then were a tad batty, today they are practically and financially useless.

Old maps, new territory

The way we access the internet is shifting fast. This change is good: It has dragged me and many other designers back to desktops creaking under the weight of conservative ideas that need cleaning out. Still, despite good intents and considerable efforts, many websites end up overloaded with graphics.

This approach is fine for print. In magazines and on billboards, snaring people’s attention has been crucial since the dawn of commercial visual graphics. But many traditional design ideas filtered into web design during the 1990s and stayed there.

Over time websites have grown larger in terms of both dimensions and bytes. Big, striking images have become the norm as connection speeds have improved. Videos, animations and other applications now crowd every corner of the net.

Up until now, this has been perhaps not ideal but at least acceptable. Browsers have adapted, screens have grown larger, and more people are on broadband.

Enter the mobile user, and suddenly some design trends are awkward or outright unworkable. Weight, especially, is a serious problem.

Mobile “broadband”

In a sense, we face a throwback to the mid-nineties: Resolutions are lower, connections slower, and screens a lot smaller. What have not changed are two important things: Mobile browsers, while tiny, are still advanced – and the mobile user is still used to rapid websites.

The sluggishness of full-blown websites loading over poor connections is a familiar problem. Still, given the introduction of faster mobile networks, this might look like a small hiccup soon to be smoothed over by blazingly fast data transfer speeds.

Not quite yet.

In many places, the majority of users still rely on non-broadband connections, and estimates from 2011 suggest there is a long way to go:

  • In Europe, about 43% of mobile phone users subscribe to mobile broadband.
  • In the Americas, subscription is just over 24%.
  • Worldwide, the number drops to under 13%. 
  • Japan has the world's highest 3G penetration - about 95%.
  • The UK’s 3G penetration last year was about 53%.

Online, time really is money

The above numbers are important for any business interested in online visibility, but it is more than a matter of convenience. Mobile users, it turns out, are not content to stare at blank screens while their bandwidth is clogged by acre-sized JPEGs.

On the contrary: If they are kept waiting, most of them leave.

For conversions speed is even more crucial, and every second counts:

  • An extra loading time of a mere second can turn away enough users to result in a 7% conversion loss.
  • Put another way, for an e-commerce website that makes $100,000 per day, this extra second can lead to a loss of $2.5 million per year.
  • Crucially, as websites adapt, expectations will rise on websites – what is slow today might be seen as unusable tomorrow.

Ideas 

There is no one-size-fits-all design recipe that applies to all aspects of every website, but there are a few guidelines that make many both faster and more efficient. Better still, many of these recommendations apply regardless of what kind of device a visitor uses.

1. Content first

As a general rule, don’t overdesign navigation. Hold back on the interface and give room to words and images. Visitors come for a reason – guide them to it without fuss.

2. Mobile first

Typical approaches in mobile versions of websites, whether responsive or separate, give clues to good practices. For example, consistent use of clear titles and a minimum of excess graphics make for speedy websites and pleased users.

Luke Wroblewski summed it up nicely already in 2009.

3. Customer first

Always size up your design decisions by thinking like a visitor. Are the images helpful, selling or (at least) not obstructive or baffling? If not, could the space be used for content or stay empty?

Remember: whitespace is important and underrated.

4. Think big (buttons)

Contrary to myth, large buttons do not look cheap if done right – and users appreciate them. Style them with CSS and put them where the users expect them to be. (There’s even science behind it.)

5. Crash-test your design at wireframe stage

Do you reach key content as quickly as possible? Find friction, hunt down ambiguities, and erase them.

6. CSS!

CSS gives you the tools for neat typography, great CTA buttons, background gradients, and more. Use it to make stunning websites that load like the wind. When you feel the need to introduce an image, consider styles first – is there any solution that might do the job?

Early days

It is too early to predict the landscape six months from now, and today’s average mobile user may not expect a full experience. Still, aiming to offer everything for everyone is a solid long-term strategy.

Good design in general benefits both users and website owners – but if a page takes too long to load, the user will never see the brilliant layout.

If you pour effort and resources into offering your visitors a great web experience, make sure they don’t leave before they see it. Mobile users grow more numerous by the hour. Businesses either step up and streamline their web presences, or risk becoming invisible.

Image credit: 500memes.com

Erik Boman

Published 29 August, 2012 by Erik Boman

Erik Borman is a Designer at Obergine and a contributor to Econsultancy. 

3 more posts from this author

Comments (19)

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Richard Harris

In the coming years it is essential that online businesses and websites that perform e-commerce are able to adapt their online presence to mobile devices. The advancement of mobile technology and the introduction of 4G to the UK later this year means that mobile phones are only becoming more functional.

over 4 years ago

Anna Lewis

Anna Lewis, Google Analytics Analyst at Koozai

I think it's great that we're seeing more and more companies building sites for mobiles and faster browsing, it obviously is going to be a long process to get every website up there and that might never happen, but to see some sites keeping up with tech is great.

I also like the sites that have a dynamic design to fit whatever device the user is using - do you think this is better than designing a new design for every size of device? Or is it best practice to build a static sized site for each device? I'm not sure which one is faster, I imagine the faster solution would be preferable!

over 4 years ago

Toni Anicic

Toni Anicic, E-commerce Consultant at Inchoo d.o.o.

"what is slow today might be seen as unusable tomorrow" - Actually, I think it's quite the opposite. Internet speeds will improve and what is slow today will not be slow tomorrow.

over 4 years ago

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Erik Boman

@Anna: Personally, I would argue for dynamic designs that adapt to any device – there are already a large number of screen resolutions in the wild, and they do not seem to become fewer. Even if it is possible to target a limited number of dominant screen sizes and resolutions, new devices, such as more flexible ebook readers and the myriad of tablets currently in the works, add to this number. Ultimately, a website that adapts to any device or resolution may prove the most cost-efficient solution.

@Toni: You may very well be right – speeds do increase rapidly, in terms of both bit transfer and geographical spread.
What I predict is that as more organisations optimize their websites, other websites that remain slow-loading will be seen as comparatively slower, which in turn makes them less competitive.
Smartphones also typically come with weaker CPUs, which lead to slower rendering of complex and byte-heavy websites, and while these CPUs may come to rival the processing muscle of their bigger brethren, I believe this is years away.
In a sense, it is a race between increased speeds and companies rethinking their online strategies. I could, of course, be completely wrong – only time will tell.

over 4 years ago

Stuart McMillan

Stuart McMillan, Deputy Head of Ecommerce at Schuh

@toni, I think customer expectations about site speed will (for the foreseeable future) exceed the roll-out of faster connection speeds. With sites Tesco, who's homepage loads in a second on a 1Mbs connection, customers will quickly become accustomed to quick sites. Yes, Tesco are a massive company, but they aren't doing anything magical to make their site faster. Most companies don't look to the big players like Amazon, Ebay, Tesco, etc when it comes to page speed, but these are the sites that their customers are spending time on.

over 4 years ago

Toni Anicic

Toni Anicic, E-commerce Consultant at Inchoo d.o.o.

Erik:

I totally agree that at this time it's really good to optimize the website as much as possible, but, I can imagine a close future where there will be no need for optimizing graphics or rendering on a website since the difference in load time will be unnoticeable by humans.

Stuart:

I doubt that customer expectations of load speed will exceed the faster connections, it will eventually come to the point where human can't tell the difference between 5 Mb and 0.5 Mb page since both will load in much, much faster than a second.

And yes, today, we need to optimize, but imagine the world of tomorrow when we will not have to make compromise and choose between our most appealing design concept and load time optimization.

over 4 years ago

Stuart McMillan

Stuart McMillan, Deputy Head of Ecommerce at Schuh

@toni, I look forward to that world!

over 4 years ago

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Charles Burrows

I agree with Toni but based on global LTE adoption (apologies, I don't have my source to hand) I predict it'll be at least two years before we see the sort of migration in device usage towards LTE that will mitigate reduction in bounce rate and conversion rate that I have seen caused by slower page load times (large UK b-to-c website of 4m+ visits per week). A good way to evaluate the opportunity here for ecommerce business owners is to scattergraph bounce rate (or conversion rate) on the Y-axis and average page load time on the X-axis, with each data point representing a different screen resolution. Since each screen resolution should, in principle, have the same bounce rate, any trend line should be flat. Where you get an upward-sloping trendline (i.e. bounce rate increases as page load time increases), you are losing money from slower page loads.

over 4 years ago

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Hugh Gage

if your website relies on a database to draw down necessary information or content for the page being requested, especially likely if you run an ecommerce site, then you should also be looking at the number of calls that are made to the database(s), how many of them are potentially redundant and how they might be streamlined / speeded up. Heavy database calls can also have a slowing effect on sites.

over 4 years ago

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David Abreu, Online Service Manager at Personal

I agree that page load times will be important for many years to come, not just in terms of human user experience but also in terms of how search engine robots index our content. Site speed is still, as far as I am aware, taken into account in Google search rankings: http://googlewebmastercentral.blogspot.co.uk/2010/04/using-site-speed-in-web-search-ranking.html
That fact alone provides me with enough justification to continue to keep my sites free from bloat!

over 4 years ago

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David Titley, Senior Designer/Developer at The Partnership UK Ltd

Before broadband became the norm all the websites I was responsible for producing had to work efficiently and were tested on the crappiest 28k modem we could find. That good practice has always stuck with me and I've never succumbed to the theory that more bandwidth means you can hit users with bigger filesizes. What broadband did was give users a faster result.

The wow factor you talk about came about through those designers who had no clue about user experience. A very fashionable term now, but not something those inexperienced designers in the late 90s understood. Working in education my focus was on UX first and foremost, and we weren't called web 'designers' we were authors.

To some degree 'design' pushed this business backwards not forwards. It's only now that mobile devices and their reduced bandwidth capacity is forcing these 'designers' to educate themselves and perhaps pick up some tips from those of us who always put UX first.

over 4 years ago

Lin Wong

Lin Wong, Group Digital Manager at Fusion Lifestyle

I think Toni is being optimistic. Sure, speeds and infrastructure are improving but not nearly as fast as smart devices (of all resolutions and sizes) is coming into the marketplace.

As well has designing to ensure speed of load and excellent UX for any device, businesses must also consider their brand. All too often businesses spend milliions on their branding where the agency typically focus on high resolution, above the line channels; the organisation then use a separate agency to build or redesign their website(s) and discover the branding for digital platforms have not been given enough attention. Result is cumbersome and weighty websites that are slow to load as well as brand inconsistency across channels.

over 4 years ago

Andrew Nicholson

Andrew Nicholson, Founder at The Guku

One overlooked factor here is hosting arrangements. A locally hosted (UK based) website sitting on a solid state drive will massively outperform a stateside hard disk equivalent. OK, so realistically, that combination may shave miliseconds off your website load times, but in the world of SEO and Ecommerce, every milisecond counts!

over 4 years ago

Stephen Thair

Stephen Thair, Director at Seriti Consulting

@Andrew - while I am a huge fan of SSD's the key point about UK vs US hosting is the latency.

We had a case where due to a routing issue traffic was being routed via the US, which added 100ms latency to each packet.

The end result for a 1.8Mb page with ~140 page objects?

A 5 second slowdown in page load time!

over 4 years ago

Andrew Nicholson

Andrew Nicholson, Founder at The Guku

Yes @Stephen, sorry, I didn't word that too well. I was actually highlighting two issues based around hosting. Latency being one, and the speed of data reading (which is vastly superior on SSD) being the other. Both of which affect overall page load times.

over 4 years ago

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arabian affiliate

today almost all of us using wordpress as the platform, and i think it's a fast, just remove any animation make the header clean and the navigation so simple and i think you are good.

over 4 years ago

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Deri Jones, CEO at SciVisum Ltd

Web performance optimisation is what I do so I shouldn't be disagreeing with you all really... but .... I will say that it's the whole User Journey that needs to be fast - not just the home page or certain pages.

It's about UI and workflow speed - more than it is about putting go-faster stripes on any subset of pages.

over 4 years ago

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Krish @FruitTravel

Use Google Site Speed to improvise our site optimization effectively. To get site to load faster its important to keep images, scripts well optimized as often developers/designers keep forgetting this a lot. Google has done really well in this regard by providing insights in GWT

over 4 years ago

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Sneha

I like the websites that have a powerful style to fit whatever system the individual is using - do you think this is better than developing a new style for every dimension device? Or is it best exercise to develop a fixed scaled website for each device? I'm not sure which one is quicker, I think about the quicker remedy would be preferable!

about 4 years ago

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