News & Views

Opinion / Effectiveness Through Performance

by Contagious Contributor
Phil Hawksworth, technology director at R/GA London, shares his highlights from web development event, Fronteers 

Each year, Amsterdam hosts Fronteers, one of the most well regarded web development conferences in Europe. This year the Fronteers Foundation added a second conference to its annual calendar with a spring edition which gathered speakers and attendees from around the world to focus on the topic of web performance.

As someone who regularly champions this subject I was happy to be invited to MC the conference which, apart from anything else, gave me great access to the speakers and attendees to find out more about the current state of the industry with regards to performance. Here are some of the most interesting things that were presented and discussed...

What do we mean by performance?

Performance could be interpreted as many things, but in this context we are talking about how we craft web experiences so that they can be served to consumers as quickly and as efficiently as possible. But even more than performance, it is the perceived performance that can have a profound impact on the experience of the user. This extremely important consideration often finds itself at the back of the queue when designing and developing a campaign or a brand engagement, as it is hard to see and understand at the early stages of a project where stakeholders might be focused on how things might look, or on the range of functionality offered.

So how do we ensure that products and campaigns truly offer rapid page rendering and avoid prohibitively high data costs to the user? And how important is that really? There have been many studies about how drastically metrics like page load times can impact the engagement of the user. Amazon famously conducted tests on this with some sobering results:

‘Tests at Amazon revealed similar results: every 100 ms increase in load time of decreased sales by 1%’

The implications of this are huge for ecommerce sites where converting visitors into customers is key. Brands working with agencies will be familiar with the importance of user experience design and optimizing each aspect of that experience, and performance is a key attribute of a good user experience.

Instagram takes that view a step further, stating earlier this year that:

‘At Instagram, we treat performance as a feature.’

and observing that:

‘Improving performance can actually drive usage… good performance brings users back.’

While these kinds of studies might suggest that such optimisations are only valuable for products and services of the scale of Amazon or Instagram, this is an equally important lesson for agencies crafting campaigns for brands. With bounce rates being so closely related to the time it takes for a web site to load, the likelihood of the campaign message reaching the intended audience is dependent on good performance.

No matter how beautiful a site is, the user won’t appreciate it if they leave before it has had time to load.

Stripping back

So then, should we be stripping back the richness of the experience for the sake of performance? I don’t believe so. It is more a question of understanding the medium, and of designing to its strengths.

At Fronteers we heard from Google's Paul Bakaus, and from Tobias Ahlin (formerly of Github and Spotify) on the subject of animations on the web. Not only about the value and impact that well designed animations can have on the quality of an experience for the user, but also how to craft those animations so that they perform beautifully on the types of devices that people might use to gain access.

We also heard detailed talks on the subject of protecting accessibility in the interest of performance and effectiveness. Speakers included Marcy Sutton and Karl Groves who both work within organisations that consult on improving accessibility issues and avoiding legal issues for inadvertently creating services which discriminate on the basis of disability.

The future

Throughout the day, the message was clear. Consumers online expect to be able to do more than ever before, with more ease than we might once have imagined. Failure to provide an interface to your product or service, or even campaign, which feels fast, responsive and intuitive can cost you their attention and their business.

As the technologies on the web mature and improve, so do our demands. We need to invest effort in making the experiences we build not only look beautiful, but also perform beautifully for the widest possible audience.

As Kristian Sköld (of performance consultancy SOASTA) described in his keynote address, the investment in crafting more efficient experiences can make a dramatic impact on a project’s return on investment, and boost the perception of a brand.