Web developers need to shape up and declare war on webpage obesity

Loading a webpage on the Verge

I wrote last week about how the Accelerated Mobile Pages project signals a dire warning for web developers. With page weight increasing dramatically year on year, it is clear that webpages are suffering from an obesity epidemic.

This is a situation that astute web managers should have avoided. But as an industry, web professionals have failed their users.

Publishers have felt pressure to include over-the-top adverts and tracking code to their websites. That is almost understandable in their panicked quest to find a viable business model.

But it’s backfiring big time. With page weight on the up, user satisfaction is on the slide. Now website owners are battling against the users’ revolt and their killer weapon: the adblocker.

Web developers as a community and as a profession should have been able to articulate why it was a bad idea to go down this path of adding more and more code to our pages. But the sad truth of the matter is that too many web developers don’t care.

In fact, for too many developers, adding more and more code is precisely what they love doing. They are attracted to web design because they are technologists whose solution to any problem is more technology.

The web industry is a heady combination of:

  • Marketers who believe they need shiny, showy pages filled with massive imagery and bonkers animations.
  • Publishers who think the best way to make money is to overload pages with intrusive pop-up adverts and over-the-top analytics tools.
  • Developers who just can’t put their JavaScript toys away.

As a result, webpages now come with a boatload of bloat. They take too long to load. When they do load, the result is often jittery pages that take too long to respond. In short, the user experience is terrible.

It’s a travesty because when it comes down to it a webpage could not be simpler. All you really need to do is put some words on a page and mark it up semantically.

In short, you just need to make a Motherf🙊king Website.

Tone down the JavaScript

This problem was outlined brilliantly by Eevee, who says maybe we could tone down the JavaScript. Go read it all. I cannot recommend it highly enough.

The point about developers “scoffing at people who don’t have exactly the same setup” as them is particularly pertinent.

Many developers I have met have felt the need to have so many monitors that they might as well have decorated their office as the Starship Enterprise. (Guilty as charged, I normally use two monitors whenever I’m at a desk.)

Web professionals normally have the best, most up-to-date equipment. They have zippy internet connections a stone’s throw away from the data centre their web server is in. They have shiny Macs with monitors the size of a bath. They have shedloads of ram. That’s fine. Of course they need it to do their jobs.

But the problem is that it divorces them from the experience real users will have with their website.

Their users are on a crappy old work PC with a low-resolution monitor, and they have to use a crappy old version of Internet Explorer. Or they are using a mid-market mobile device with a breakpoint that’s different to the big iPhone size the developer wrote the media queries for.

Or maybe they are using something completely different. Maybe they have accessibility needs. Maybe they use a screen reader.

Maybe — just maybe — they are so fed up of all the JavaScript you are forcing through their not-as-good-as-yours internet connection that they have switched JavaScript off. Does your website still work then?

I often learned more about a website I was working on by having a meeting in a colleague’s office. Nothing teaches you about different environments like using someone else’s machine. Using the website (not just looking at the site and testing a few pages, but actually trying to use the thing) on a crappy version of Internet Explorer was an eye-opening experience.

Basic disrespect for your users

I was flabbergasted recently to read some disrespectful comments made by readers of a great article on the very respectable A List Apart.

The article told a cautionary tale that explains exactly why you shouldn’t make your page require JavaScript to display any content. Inside was a fascinating nugget: the Government Digital Service worked out that 1.1% of its users do not receive JavaScript enhancements. Interestingly, only a small proportion of those people had turned JavaScript off.

The comments on this article were full of developers outraged at the mere suggestion that their precious JavaScript toys might be a problem. This remark from cmart was the icing on the cake for me:

As developers, we have the power to say that “this site will not work without JavaScript and CSS, sorry”. There’s not some law that says we have to support every possible scenario, or else we’ll be thrown in gaol. We can say to this tiny proportion of people to whom it applies, “deal with it, if you want to use my site, upgrade your browser”.

Ultimately, it comes down to, do we even care about 1% of people? And unless you’re Google, the answer is often, “No”.

So much for meeting users’ needs, huh?

“I am developer! You switch on JavaScript so that I can force you to use my wonderful code or else!”

1% of your users is still a lot of people

If you have a problem with 1% of your users, then you have a problem. 1% might sound to you like a small amount. But it’s actually a massive number of people.

Imagine a physical equivalent. Perhaps a busy supermarket. Let’s say the store had some terrible issue with its layout. This means that 1% of all their customers couldn’t enter the store. The supermarket owner would see they were turning away dozens — maybe hundreds — of customers every day.

They would understand they had a major problem on their hands. Lost business, lost revenue, upset customers and disastrous word-of-mouth reviews. The damage would be much more than 1% in lost revenue.

In fact, such a major physical access problem would likely be illegal under the Equality Act. An inaccessible website may be as well.

But you shouldn’t think about accessibility because of the law or because you might lose revenue. You should consider it because it’s the right thing to do and you are a grown adult who should have a basic level of respect for your fellow humans.

All this data is costing users money

Something else to consider is that for many people, data isn’t cheap. It costs them money to download all this unnecessary cruft. Bruce Lawson made this point on adblocking.

According to the New York Times, visiting Boston.com costs a user 32 cents per visit. That’s mostly because of the ads.

On this, Maciej Cegłowski made this fascinating observation:

This is nothing more than a micropayment to the telecommunications company. And I’m sure it’s more revenue than Boston.com sees from the ad impressions on the page.

We’re in a stupid situation where ads make huge profits for data carriers and ad networks, at the expense of everyone else.

In this context, we should probably be surprise that more people aren’t yet turning to adblockers and other ways of stopping the crap before it comes through their internet tubes.

Remember what the web is fundamentally for

I find this whole situation immensely frustrating. I love the web. Yet, as I said in my previous article, the web is in a state of ill health.

It shouldn’t — and needn’t — be this way.

The web is the most democratising medium the world has ever seen. It has revolutionised access to information. It has given the voiceless a voice.

But the situation the web finds itself in today is very sorry. The web hasn’t just lost its mojo. It’s lost its soul.

This has come about because too many of us in the web industry forgot that the web is fundamentally about access to information.

Instead, we became fixated with the technology and made it about the toys. We have turned it into a technologist’s playground. The web is now best experienced on high-end gold-plated iPhones and state-of-the-art desktop monsters with superb broadband connections an amount of ram that would have been unimaginable when Tim Berners-Lee created the first webpage.

As web professionals, we need to start taking a stand for our users. Making information accessible to as many people as possible should be our top priority. We should not just consider the 99% of people we find it convenient to think about.

The technology is there. We should use it for good, rather than the careless approach we are taking at the moment.

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