The altar of shiny

Web design trends often carry hefty performance costs

Web and mobile users continue to expect faster sites and apps–especially when it comes to mobile–and this year I’d like to see people who work on the web spend more time focusing on performance as a user experience priority instead of chasing trends.

I recently ran across this article in Forbes, which lists a number of web design goals/trends that Steve Cooper is eyeing for a site redesign of online magazine Hitched. My intention is not to pick on Hitched or Cooper per se, but the list is a molotov cocktail of potential performance woes:

  • Continuous scrolling
  • Responsive design
  • Parallax sites

You can use most of those techniques without creating performance nightmares, but it is unfortunately rare. I feel like I’m living in an alternate reality where I’m hearing that users want simpler, faster sites, and yet the trends in web design are marching in the opposite direction.

Any of these approaches in Cooper’s list could backfire in terms of performance, or with user expectations–which are ultimately more important than raw performance itself. Check out this fantastic presentation from Dan McKinley at Etsy on the surprising outcome when they implemented (and then tested) continuous scrolling on their site. (To be fair, Cooper does mention performance gains that come with smaller buttons in many flat designs. But he fails to think about the far more significant performance drains from all the other techniques he’s considering.)

Tammy Everts of Radware recently posted her Top 9 list of web performance predictions for 2014, and I want to quote directly from the second item in the list:

Essentially, what’s happening is that IT is inheriting pages with performance problems caused by lack of foresight during the UX design phase, and now IT is forced to go backwards to identify and fix the problems, rather than taking a planning-first, forward-looking approach. Not only is this unfair, it’s also inefficient. Performance shouldn’t be kept in an IT silo or treated as an afterthought. It needs to be considered as an integral part of user experience design from stage one.

To this end, tomorrow we’re kicking off a series of posts on web performance aimed at web designers, written by Lara Swanson, who manages the mobile engineering team at Etsy. We start with the premise that performance is a key part of the user experience, and walk through a series of ways that web designers (and developers) can factor performance into their design workflow.

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