A decade of working in the Web performance industry can leave one with the idea that no matter how good a site is, there is always the opportunity to be better, be faster. However, I am beginning to believe, just from my personal experience on the Internet, that speed has reached its peak with the current technologies we have.
This does not bode well for an Internet that is shifting more directly to true read/write, data/interaction heavy Web sites. This needs to have home broadband that is not only fast, but which has equality for inbound and outbound connection speeds.
But will faster home broadband really make that much of a difference? Or will faster networks just show that even with the best connectivity to the Internet money can buy, Web sites are actually hurting themselves with poor design and inefficient data interaction designs?
For companies on the edge of Web performance, who are trying to push their ability to improve the customer experience as hard as possible, who are moving hard and fast to the read/write web, here are some ways you can ensure that you can still deliver the customer experience your visitors expect.
Confirm your customers’ bandwidth
This is pretty easy. Most reasonably powerful Web analytics tools can confirm this for you, breaking it down by dialup, and high broadband type. It’s a great way to ensure that your preconceptions about how your customers interact with your Web site meets the reality of their world.
It is also a way to see just how unbalanced your customers’ inbound and outbound connection speeds. If it is clear that traffic is coming from connection types or broadband providers that are heavily weighted towards download, then optimization exercises cannot ignore the effect of data uploads on the customer experience.
Design for customers’ bandwidth
Now that you’ve confirmed the structure of your customers’ bandwidth, ensure that your site and data interaction design are designed with this in mind. Data that uses a number of inefficient data calls behind the scenes in order to be more AJAXy may hurt itself when it tries to make those calls over a network that’s optimized for download and not upload.
Measure from the customer perspective
Web performance measurement has been around a long time. But understanding how the site performs from the perspective of true (not simulated) customer connectivity, right where they live and work, will highlight how your optimizations may or may not be working as expected.
Measurements from high-throughput, high-quality datacenter connections give you some insight into performance under the best possible circumstances. Measure from the customer’s desktop, and even the most thoughtfully planned optimization efforts may have been like attacking a mammoth with a closed safety pin: ineffective and it annoys the mammoth [to paraphrase Hugh Macleod].
As well as synthetic measurements, measure performance right from within the browser. Understanding how long it takes pages to render, how long it takes to show content above the fold, and to gather discrete times on complex Flash and AJAX events within the page will give you even more control over finding those things you can fix.
In the end, even assuming your customers have the best connectivity, and you have taken all the necessary precautions to get Web performance right, don’t assume that the technology can save you from bad design and slow applications.
Be constantly vigilant. And measure everything.