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Posted by Nat Walker on 28 June 2016

Why businesses need to care about performance optimisation

Performance optimisation is a pretty hot topic in the digital marketing community right now. There's even a Twitter hashtag!  Although don't be fooled by thinking it's a buzzword trend that’s likely to pass quickly, I'm pretty sure that it's only going to get more important over time. 

So firstly let's take a look at exactly what is a performance budget within the context of digital development? Well, a simple description given on the InVision Blog is of;

"a group of limits to certain values that affect site performance, that may not be exceeded in the design and development of any web project".

As a general rule people are on the internet because they need or want to get something done, and they don’t want it to take too much time out of their busy lives. 

Therefore, it’s our job, as the people making choices about what content to include in a website and how to display it, to make it as easy and as quick as possible for people to achieve their goals. 

Why should a business care about performance?

The easier and more quickly customers can engage with your web pages, the more likely they are to proceed with buying a product, getting in touch, or completing some other form of engagement.

To use a stat from our previous post on How to improve website speed 40% of people abandon a website that takes more than 3 seconds to load. That’s a significant percentage of customers who may never even get to see how awesome your product or service is.

Vox, the team behind news site The Verge (amongst other popular websites), have talked honestly and extensively about the process they've gone through to optimise the performance of their products and how performance is the responsibility of everyone.  In fact I was initially inspired to start using performance budgets by their Design Director, Yesenia Perez-Cruz's talk at DIBI conference earlier this year – Design decisions through the lens of a Performance Budget. To quote Yesenia "Fast sites build trust and are memorable".

The problem

With the increased prevalence of full-width images, animation and video in web design, page load times are increasing and we need to try and mitigate the effect on the customer's experience without negatively affecting the visual impact of a website.

The amount of users accessing websites on mobile phones has grown considerably with 33% of internet users now seeing their smartphone as their most important device for going online - which means that a significant amount of your website's user base may be limited by slower internet connections, making it even more important to make the site load as quickly as possible.

A great example of keeping devices (and connection) as a key focus is of when the BBC developed their responsive mobile site.  During this project they set a budget which had a limit of each page to be usable within 10 seconds on a GPRS connection, and then based their goals for page weight and request count on that.

The solution

There is often temptation for a development and design team to think about web page performance retrospectively and optimise the page during or after the build, rather than letting performance inform decisions earlier in the project to avoid problems later on.

This is usually done by employing techniques like lazy-loading (loading in content that is further down the page later on to reduce the up-front loading speed of the page), optimising images and re-factoring the code used to build the site, among other techniques. 

Even though these techniques should still be employed where necessary, there are limitations to their success. There is only so much that can be done at this stage because by this point, you’ve - hopefully - already fallen in love with the design for your website. To start removing features and changing the design could not only negatively impact the user’s journey, but disillusion the team and other stakeholders, you obviously want to show off your personality and ability in the most impactful way possible. So this is where setting a performance budget at the start of the project can really help.

A performance budget sets a desired page-weight and, in turn page load speed based on your competitor's websites. Statistics show that human beings identify a change in speed, whether it be faster or slower, if the speed is at least 20% different. Because of this, to set a performance budget we recommend finding the fastest competing website and trying to beat that speed by 20%. The budget should be set after decisions have been made on what content is needed on the web page but before a visual design is produced. The budget calculated is what can be worked with when visually designing the page, meaning that expectations are managed with regard to the final product from the word go.

It’s also worth noting that different pages on the website should have a different budget set, this is because the content required on a page informs the visual design of a web page, and different pages - a homepage and a content page for example, require different content. 

Why not just use industry standards?

Ideally, according to industry standards, a web page would load within approximately 3 seconds. Unfortunately, to meet this standard we may find ourselves having to compromise a step too far on design and the fact remains that creating a visual impact still matters.

The advantage of measuring against competitors instead of an industry standard is that your competitors will likely have similar needs, in terms of content and information architecture to your organisation, so the metrics are a more accurate representation of page performance in your own market.

So what’s the catch?

Honestly? There isn’t one. 

Of course there will be compromises to be made if you want to stay within the performance budget calculated, as there are with all budgets. However, because information has been collected to support the budget, data-driven decisions can be made about what's included in the design and what can possibly be removed to make room for any features that are deemed more important.

There are 3 main courses of action to take when it's been identified that introducing a new feature will result in the performance budget being exceeded;

  1. Choose not to add the new feature
  2. When appropriate optimise some other element of the site to make room for the new feature
  3. Or remove another element entirely

The compromises made don't have to be ground-breaking, they can be as simple as using one less image in a carousel at the top of the page, or choosing one font over another. 

What is important is that website performance is being discussed from the very start of the project, and not viewed as an afterthought - it impacts far too strongly on the full experience (and therefore the success or failure of a website) not to be given this careful consideration. 

What's been your experience of using performance budgets? Have you seen positive results? Please do share your views in the comments below, we would love to hear them - and if you would like to chat in any more detail about this topic just drop us a line. 


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