Why good web designers aren’t breaking the web

In the Observer today, John Naughton wrote a thought-provoking piece on why he thinks graphic designers are ruining the web. He might be right that websites are slower, but not for the reasons he states.

In the Observer today, John Naughton wrote a thought-provoking piece on why he thinks graphic designers are ruining the web.

John's central argument is that websites have got more bloated and slower to download, which has created a bad user experience for users of the web. And he places the blame at the doorstep of web designers and web agencies around the world, keen for their "pixel perfect" designs to showcase the web.

I totally agree with John's sentiment that web pages have become more bloated of late. And I totally agree that slow, bloated web pages create a bad user experience. However, I don't lay the blame purely on the door of web designers. And a lot of us are doing things to improve this situation.

Back in November Pingdom reported on a 25% size increase of web pages in the past year, which they put down to increased usage of JavaScript to create what many people call a "rich user experience", essentially pushing more interactivity to the web browser using techniques such as AJAX to update web pages without reloading the entire page.

The increased usage of new technologies such as HTML5 and cleverer JavaScript has meant web pages have got really large. This may be great news for desktop users with fast broadband connections, assuming they don't live in the countryside where broadband speed is still woefully slow, but for a lot of the web it is a real problem as websites become more sluggish to respond. The exponential rise of mobile internet use also demands fast web pages, since 3G connections are often far slower than their desktop counterparts.

The use of more images is also an issue for web page speed, but it's not the only one and I honestly don't think it's down to web designers attempting to create beautiful designs that is causing a more bloated web. Slower websites are really caused by the move towards a more sophisticated, interactive web which is full of JavaScript that all runs on the browser. Why is this happening? I'd say it's more down to client and user demand than from web designer's vanity to create fancy sites. Client's demand cleverer websites that meet their business objectives, and users of the web are becoming more sophisticated and have higher expectations of the web.

The impression of download speed is also caused by many different things, not just total download size: the number of items to download slows down a browser; JavaScript that runs immediately before the whole web page has downloaded (as many badly written JavaScript does) slows everything down; every page requesting content from a database rather than using a fast cache slows down pages further still.

But it's not all doom and gloom. Professional web designers and agencies have been building sites using web standards for years and there is a large body of expertise on how to build fast, modern sites which still have all these fancy features. Minification of JavaScript and CSS, page caching and combining multiple images all help to make download speed faster.

The rise of mobile is also forcing our hand, where fast websites will have more success with users. Even Google now uses page speed as a contributing factor to its famous page rank algorithm.

I hope John can see there are designers and agencies out there who really do care about this stuff and are working hard to make the web a better place for everyone. Pixel perfect web design is dead, web speed is important and John's right in his introduction when he states the web pages are "simple pages of text marked up with some tags". Websites might have got more complicated, but ultimately they're still just a bunch of web pages with hyperlinks that should work on whatever device the user accesses them on.

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