Soy Beans and Slow Internet

Soy beans and slow internet.

Building websites to perform well on old slow networks is a tough sell. I know because I have been barking up that tree for over a year on every site I’ve built. No matter how I’ve tried to make my case, account leads, creatives, and clients seem to see slow networks as something that only exists in places with names they can’t pronounce. What they don’t realize (hell, what I didn’t even realize) is that slow networks can be as close as the nearest farm town.

Several months ago there was an article in our local paper that reported an estimated 42% of Hoosiers (i.e., people who live in Indiana, USA) connect to the internet at speeds below the federal broadband standard of 25 Mbps. Typically, their connection speeds dawdle along at around 10 Mbps while us city slickers are racing along anywhere between 25 to 250 Mbps.

This was a huge surprise to me. In some counties near where I live, less than 30% of residents have broadband that meets the federal minimum! They live with the kinds of delays and dropped connections I only experience when my phone is on a 3G network. So not only are fun things like watching Netflix or playing Fortnite harder; basic everyday tasks like paying bills and placing an Amazon order are also needlessly frustrating. Can you image what its like to try and access websites that aren’t as highly optimized as those services?

The problem is so widespread, our Governor, Eric Holcomb, has made it part of his billion dollar investment in state infrastructure he calls the “Next Level Agenda”. While that is good news, fixing the problem means building the network from scratch at a price tag of about $20,000 to $60,000 per mile. Not exactly cheap. This means a lot of folks with fields for back yards aren’t going to be seeing faster internet anytime soon.

The fact that this affects so many people, so close to home, should be all the motivation any good web developer needs to make performance a priority. When their client’s existing (or, potential) customers go home and continue browsing the site, it cannot suck on their crappy home internet! The frustrations of that experience virtually guarantee a customer lost forever.

Luckily, it’s easier than ever to make any site faster. Topping that list would be the old favorites of caching, minifying, gzipping, and image optimization. It’s easy to go on auto-pilot with caching and image compression though. Every byte counts, so fine-tune your cache settings to match the needs of your site. Spend a little time fiddling with compression settings to shave off every unneeded bit.

From there you can get as deep into the weeds as time and money allow. Reducing http requests, using conditional loading, building with progressive enhancement, and starting a project with a performance budget, are highly effective ways to make sure the sites you build are as fast as possible. A great resource to get you started on learning about all this is Scott Jehl’s excellent Responsible Responsive Design from A Book Apart. Scott expertly walks you through these and other techniques. I can’t recommend this book enough if you are new to this, or just need a handy desk reference to make sure you haven’t forgotten something.

Responsible Responsive Design by Scott Jehl

One of the best thing a developer can do for his client’s site is to take the time to make it fast. As part of your development process, throttle your network speed in the browser and show your bosses and clients what their site will be like to use for roughly half their customer base. They may decide real quick they don’t need that background video, or (God help me) another fucking carousel of images.