For Agencies: Four Tips for Taming Feature Mania (and the Resulting Site Bloat)
Web applications have been growing in weight since the 1990’s, and that growth has seriously accelerated of late. The average web application home page in 2014 was a whopping 1.9 MB – an amount that was unheard of just a few years ago.
These bloated applications, full of rich media, interactive features, and high-res imagery, are partly a product of rising expectations from users. Companies build what users want. But it’s also the result of a lack of trust and communication between those building apps and those who determine how they should look and function.
Good developers are keenly aware of the performance implications of what they build. Marketers, creative directors, and other stakeholders are less attuned to such concerns. Yet time and again, as apps and features are planned, the latter group’s demands win out and unwieldy apps are built. Then teams are sent scrambling to optimize post-launch when it turns out user engagement is low because of slow performance.
The Agency Bind
This phenomenon is especially present in a client/agency relationship. Communication is less fluid between separate organizations than it would between members of an in-house AppDev team. And when it comes to feedback flowing from the agency to the client, the message is less frank and more deferential. It’s a lot easier to lose an account than lose your job.
The result is that sometimes agency development teams, eager to please their clients, build over-designed, over-featured apps, knowing full well that the user experience will suffer as a result. In this scenario, nobody wins.
So if you’re an agency, how can you address client demands while also fulfilling your responsibility to provide an app that has a great user experience? Once you polish up your Zen master shtick and sterling diplomacy tools, consider the following four tips, sourced from digital agency pros, for holding tight to your high performance standards.
1. Establish a customer-driven statement of purpose.
Compel the application’s stakeholders to identify the site’s most essential reason for being. Then align that goal with the user’s needs.
“There’s a kind of inside-out thinking that’s very popular right now,” says Tom Bennett, experience strategist at ISITE Design. “We prefer to tackle it with an outside-in mind-set: Consider users first, then the site’s development wish list. Clients should be investing in a site in order to perform a defined business task, such as selling merchandise, booking reservations, or encouraging ad clicks. Anything that does not directly help in that task should be subject to scrutiny.”
One way to pare down a laundry list of demands is to frame site development as an ongoing process, says Celso White, a New York Web designer and developer. “Encourage the client to cut their list down to the essentials. The first stage is all about constructing a site that’s best for the business and user needs at that time, while always keeping an open mind for how it can evolve in its next stage or stages.”
These tips get to the heart of how brands must focus on the user in what Forrester calls the “age of the customer.” 92% of companies claim that better serving the customer is a high priority – so framing the project in these terms should resonate with stakeholders like the CMO.
2. Leverage the power of personas.
In a world of dynamic website personalization, A/B testing, and real-time analytics, “personas” have begun to take on a hue of old-school gut-based marketing. But like it or not, there remain important aspects of design that cannot be boiled down to spreadsheets. Nor are personas limited to helping choose a font or slogan – they work in the case of brass tacks feature-related decisions too.
“Using personas to inform development can help a developer remove subjectivity from decision-making and to better manage a client,” says Tom Bennett. “We can rely on personas, along with the defined business goals, to help us make decisions. These are virtuous, neat antidotes to the well-intentioned enthusiasm of a CMO, CEO, or even creative director.”
Think of personas not just as a tool that helps to explore what messaging or tone might resonate with users, but as a tool to explore the user’s possible browsing contexts. Thinking about how users will access the app – on the go, at home on a tablet, on a work laptop – will help to show the client that there’s more to app design than jumping at what the competition is doing, or following the prevailing trend du jour.
This article from the NN Group offers great advice for how to do usability tests on a current site – before doing any work on new designs. This kind of usability testing is a great way to build and leverage useful personas that clients will trust.
3. Let testing take the heat.
If personas are a holdover from the pre-web 2.0 days, A/B testing is its modern counterpart. Testing can give a great strategy the momentum it needs to make it through the approvals gauntlet. “Clients are typically intrigued by the idea of seeing results and being able to adapt their site based on test findings,” says White. Here, the users themselves vote with their actions, either verifying or challenging those initial subjective assumptions.
Anshey Bhatia, principal of Verbal +Visual, a New York design firm, has developed numerous lifestyle sites and is a staunch testing advocate. “Statistics are powerful, plain and simple. For instance, if an online shopper is kept waiting for more than four seconds to execute a transaction, he or she is ten times more likely to leave without making the purchase. Numbers like these don’t lie.” So rather than argue over the merits of the client’s idea, test it against what you think would do better. The users will speak their minds in the language of bounce rate, pages per session, time per session, and conversion rate.
But if your goal is to avoid site bloat, be sure to have a reliable performance monitoring in place before starting A/B testing, and know how to use it inside and out. Google Analytics’ built-in performance monitoring tool, for instance, has several limitations that could lead your comparisons astray if you’re not careful. Check out our earlier post on some of the basics of performance monitoring to get the lay of the land. Monitoring EUE, or end-user experience, will enable you to track how the performance of the app impacts key metrics like conversion rate.
4. Invest in automated optimization
Despite your best efforts, you will sometimes have to acquiesce and build an application that is slow out of the box. So what do you do with a massively bloated application, with dozens of scripts and rich media galore?
There are dozens of options for optimization. The most well known among developers are tactics like using advanced compression for images, and concatenation and minification for scripts.Unfortunately, much of the rich media that bogs down performance is immune to these efforts, and the scripts that link apps with social media and other third party services are similarly outside the scope of what developers can optimize.
The best option is automation. A market has sprouted for cloud-based performance optimization tools (such as Yottaa) that can transform applications on the fly. These can save you from intractable optimization cycles, and can extend beyond what’s possible or reasonable for developers to do by performing context-based optimization on the fly – for example, determining a user is on a poor connection and sending simpler version that will load faster and more consistently.
Yottaa works with hosting, development and design agencies looking to ensure the best implementation possible for their clients. The Yottaa platform requires no code changes to implement and uses ImpactAnalytics to demonstrate the business value of optimization by integrating a client’s existing analytics provider. Click here to learn more.