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Published: Monday, January 03, 2000

Speed Is The Essence

By Mo Morgan

(Why using all the latest technology may not be a good thing)
An article by Mo Morgan, Chief New Media Director, Firelive Interactive.

- continued -

(c) 2000 Firelive Interactive.

On 2 September 1969, the Internet was born. Not in the form we recognise today, you understand, but on that day the first successful transmission of data from one computer to another over a remote network was made. The positive implications of this, particularly for the Military, were exciting to say the least - but nobody at the time could possibly have anticipated the explosive popularity of a system based on that technology some 20 years later.

Today, the online community continues to grow at an alarming rate, and the supply of ways to occupy this community is not far behind. And with Web Designers constantly striving to make bigger, better and more featured sites available, the technology used to support them is constantly evolving.

The introduction of such technologies as HTML, JavaScript, CGI and ASP have all had a massive impact on the way the Internet is used - particularly the Web - and we are now moving towards a point where these technologies play a key role in the lives of many. Our browsers are freely available and constantly improving, user-end computers are getting faster, servers are becoming faster and more capable, and as a result the content of the Web is becoming more and more sophisticated.

World Wide Wait
But with all these tools at our disposal, the temptation for Web Designers to use as many of them as possible is huge. When you look at a personal Site, the chances are there'll be a myriad of little JavaScripts, some enormous graphics, a useless Frameset and so on. But ask yourself (as you sit there waiting for it all to shuffle down the wires) just how necessary is it all? What is it trying to convey to you, and could it have done it 45 seconds ago?

I am based in London, and I work as a New Media Consultant. The majority of our business comes from people who have a Website and online facilities already, but it doesn't do what their competitors' does - which is usually measured in terms of profitability. Every day, I am asked by clients, colleagues and friends how I would improve their Sites, and nine times out of ten my first comment has to be about the speed of access.

It's Good To Talk
Those outside the UK may not know this, but on this group of islands we're a little behind as far as connectivity goes. The vast majority of the UK's online community is accessing the Web using a 56k modem and what is apparently a 33k line. We're using a telephone infrastructure installed just after World War II, with over half our businesses and nearly every household plugging their computers into 60 or more year-old copper-core suspended over our streets.

Furthermore, we pay upward of 4 pence (about $0.07) a minute to access the Internet. Using figures from December 1999, there are over 10 million UK Internet users, online for an average of 12 minutes a day, so you're looking at us spending about 175,200,000 (about $280,320,000) a year just staying connected.

So, in the UK at least, our time is precious. Imagine if every page on a Site takes around 40 seconds to download in full, of which a UK visitor wishes to view 10 pages, taking a minute to view each one - that's about 67 pence (about $1.08). Is that visitor going to feel that is money well spent? I would argue that often they do not.

Progress, And How To Avoid It
Of course, the guy at his PC does not think about exactly how much he has spent on viewing a particular page, but when he sees his phone bill he'll be prompted to tell his kids only to use the Net for school. He will also make a conscious effort to cut down on the time he spends online, and with that thought in mind he will not access as much content as he did before.

Is this the way forward? Is this the future of the Internet? Should people have this amazing facility but not be able to use it? Should we discourage our children from using the Internet simply because of cost? No, no, no and no - but what can be done about it? What can we as members of the online community do to make significant improvements to our little respective corners of the Web, to better the Web as a whole?

A good start would be the way we construct our Sites. When designing, put yourself in your visitors' shoes, and ask "is that JavaScript page transition really worth waiting for?", "what will be the first thing I see when I type in the address?", "what's the first thing I will see when accessing the Site?" and so on.

Practise What You Preach
Here's an example of what I mean. A company that makes guitar amplifiers asked me to redesign their Site from scratch, to match their biggest rival. As it happens, their rival was the market leader - with massive worldwide sales, and my client was a reasonably well-known but struggling company. Exactly two months later, to coincide with their 31st anniversary, a completely new Site appeared on their Domain. One of the major considerations in my design was the speed at which the Site could be accessed in full, compared with the rival. Although some minor changes have been made since the Site left my control, see for yourself the difference between my old Site at http://www.orange-amps.com and the rivals at http://www.marshallamps.com.

When accessing the latter of the two Sites, a black screen will greet you, for some considerable time. It took me 40 seconds to download the opening screen, and a further 60 to download the following menu. In that 100 seconds, there was no text to read - or anything to distract me from how long it was taking to download JPEG after JPEG and all the JavaScript rollovers.

On the former, it took 2 seconds before I was reading the text of the opening sequence: a JavaScript slide show of text. 15 seconds later, once the slide show has run its course, I'm looking at the text of the main menu, and it's a further 3 seconds before the menu is completely downloaded.

100 seconds of nothing versus 20 seconds of reading matter. More than 900 visitors mailed me within the first month of that Site going live, entirely unprompted, to tell me which they preferred.

  • Read Part 2 - How to Do It

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