Volume 1, Number 2
May 1, 2006

Articles

To Speed or Impede: Considering Page Response Time In Relation To Web Design. by JC Smith

Response time is quite possibly one of the most important issues to consider when designing a web site.

The Issue:

What is the single-most important element to consider when developing a web page design strategy? Issues of navigational ease are generally an area of concern to both users and designers alike. Most users will not spend much time navigating a page that is not well organized. Color and animation are also issues of some significance. "Flashy" web pages with easily readable fonts and wonderfully coordinated colors can make browsing enjoyable. One aspect of design that isn't always so explicitly apparent to both the user and designers alike is the page response time-- just how long it takes for the web page to be "rendered" or displayed in the browser. Response time is quite possibly one of the most important issues to consider when designing a web site.

Why Faster?

Flashy animations and high-resolution photos might be aesthetically pleasing, but studies have shown that one of the most important features a web site must have in order to keep a user's attention is a fast loading time. While many experts differ in opinion as to just what the optimal speed for page to download is, most agree that it should be no longer than ten seconds. The majority of studies that have been done on user attention spans agree that this is the maximum amount of time that the average user should be expected to keep their attention focused while browsing.(Nielson, 1994.) Ten seconds doesn't necessarily sound like a very long time,but from the user perspective, it can seem like an eternity.

the long wait. The attention span of the average user is about 10 seconds.

Speed Bumps:

There are a number of factors than can contribute to lengthy page-load times. Slow internet connection speeds for instance, can slow things down considerably. As recently as 2004, the estimated percentage of users with high speed internet access at either home or the workplace was only 28. A whopping 62 percent of users were still using a 56k dialup connection or slower.(Nielson, 1997.)With a majority of web users connecting at such a relatively slow speed, pages have to be designed to work well when being browsed by users with low-speed connections. Even though the number of high-speed internet users is not rapidly increasing, the number of people accessing the web is. Many popular sites are taken by surprise by unexpectedly high rates of web traffic.(Nielson, 1997.) It is important for a site to stay current, not just updating content, but by upgrading server hardware and internet connection to remain a step ahead of the demands placed upon them by increased traffic.

Solutions:

So what can be done to speed up page response times? Trying to get all users upgraded to broadband would most likely be an exercise in futility, as much as forcing hosting services to adopt the latest server technology would be. Ostensibly, the best way to approach this issue is from the design end, but how should we go about it? The bottom line, according to web design expert Eric Meyer, is that regardless of the type of connection, "Speed is dependant upon how many bytes are being sent across the wire." Considering this notion, it makes sense that we need to design web pages that are streamlined, to get content across to the user, while using the least amount of space possible.

Web Standard-Oriented Design:

One way to accomplish this goal is to change the focus of our design efforts from table drawn markup to web-standard oriented design. Meyer, in an interview with David Poteet, says that standards based design can make a site more efficient, faster and more accessible. Standard oriented design can have more of an impact on page response time than the actual page format being used. "CSS versus table layout means virtually nothing in terms of page rendering. Where the difference comes in is that by using standards-oriented approach instead of table drawn markup, the page weights are about half." (Meyer, 2005.) Many businesses have started to design their sites based on web standards, recognizing the benefits of increased speed. Richard Rutter, writer and host of the blog, clagnut, comments on the results he experienced after working on a standard oriented re-design of Multimap UK. "We had more users because the site was more responsive." What Rutter saw was not an immediate decrease in costs, because of higher server traffic. Instead a greater profit was realized, because of the increase of traffic. Rutter speculates that because of the faster response times brought about by utilizing web standards, the user experience was much more enjoyable, resulting in the sudden surge in traffic, and subsequent increase in profit.

Other Design Tips:

In his article,"The Need for Speed," Nielson offers some advice for the web designer to help reduce page response time. He recommends that when using style sheets, keep in mind that embedded style sheets add to the size of every single page. Linking style sheets can greatly reduce the size of the page to be loaded, reducing the response time significantly. He also recommends that the top of the page contain meaningful information that can be perused even before the pictures have finished downloading. Considering the fact that there is only a window of a few seconds to capture a user's attention, pages should load the top very quickly, giving the user something to grab their attention, especially if there will be a significant response time involved.

And the point is...

Trying to maintain a balance between content and usability is not an easy task. Designers must keep in mind that page response time is one of the most important considerations when developing a site design strategy. Ultimately, the best and most successful sites are those that are easy to navigate, and that deliver the most useful information as efficiently as possible. Sites that are user-friendly, with quick response times will inevitably be more successful than those that are hard to navigate and slow-loading.

About the Author

JC Smith is currently an MA student in the Digital Rhetoric and Professional Writing program at Michigan State University. His interests include: Creative writing, 17c English literature, movies, PC gaming, home brewing, painting, sculpting, and online writing communities.

Email: smith529 AT msu DOT edu

References

Nielson, Jakob "Usabilty Engineering"
published by Morgan Kaufman, San Francisco, 1994.
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"The Need for Speed"
Jakob Nielson's Alertbox for March 1, 1997.
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Poteet, David. Sept 12, 2005. "Why eBay needs Standards-Oriented Design: An Interview with Eric A. Meyer"
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