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Most developers are powerless to save the web

Nick Heer has a great post I can’t link to enough. The gist is ten years ago we all had slow Internet connections and now they’re faster. But despite having faster connections, developers mire websites in so many trackers, scripts, and useless garbage we haven’t progressed the web to be any faster than it was a decade ago.

I can’t agree with Heer more. I’ve been harping on this stuff for years.  But there’s a persistent problem I can’t overcome: clients want more of this stuff, not less.

Clients at our scale are small or modest operations without a ton of staff and money. In the last month I have sat in meetings or phone calls where people have said point-blank:

  • “The website seems kind of boring. Let’s add more photos and maybe a slider at the top.”
  • “I’d like to see this really grab people’s attention. Can we make some of this stuff slide in from the sides or something?”
  • “I want people to sign up for our email list, just make that pop-up so they see it”
  • “I’m not sure anyone’s seeing this stuff. Let’s make it all bold.”
  • “Why doesn’t this font match our letterhead in Word? This stuff should all match.”
  • “We want our site to be highly visual. Every page should be different and immersive with video, graphics, sound, and be really engaging.”

I’m not kidding. This is just from the last month. And I’m quoting this verbatim. You’ll notice most aren’t asking, they’re declaring it. People almost always precede this with, “Well, we want something really simple and easy to navigate.” It sounds ironic, but some people think drop-down menus are complicated because they contain words, yet the “engaging graphics” stuff is great.

Heer again:

a lot of the stuff we’re seeing is a pile-up of garbage on seemingly every major website that does nothing to make visitors happier — if anything, much of this stuff is deeply irritating and morally indefensible.

Take that CNN article, for example. Here’s what it contained when I loaded it:

  • Eleven web fonts, totalling 414 KB
  • Four stylesheets, totalling 315 KB
  • Twenty frames
  • Twenty-nine XML HTTP requests, totalling about 500 KB
  • Approximately one hundred scripts, totalling several megabytes — though it’s hard to pin down the number and actual size because some of the scripts are “beacons” that load after the page is technically finished downloading.

I know. I hate it too, yet I am often powerless to stop it. I have breathlessly declared to clients why we shouldn’t use sliders. None of our folks use a bunch of ad trackers, but I can’t get away with not having Google Analytics. At least once a year someone wants a report and they expect numbers. For people who don’t do e-commerce, it’s all we’ve got.

This is likely to get worse, too. More clients are devoting more attention to their Facebook and Twitter followers than ever before. All of that stuff requires more junk code.

Heer again:

The combination of huge images that serve little additional purpose than decoration, several scripts that track how far you scroll on a page, and dozens of scripts that are advertising related means that text-based webpages are now obese and torpid and excreting a casual contempt for visitors.

We spent six months tracking website scrolls, mouse movement, and other activity. I felt terrible, but now I have data to make people understand I’m not making this stuff up. We learned a lot from that:

  • No one reads anything in the middle of a typical homepage.
  • All the attention is on the top navigation menu and then people scroll immediately to the bottom menu for more.
  • No one has ever clicked on a slider image, caption, or forward/back button.
  • People will read the text if it’s good.
  • No one uses any of the social media widgets on a site, ever.

I feel like a broken record, a stick in the mud, and obstinate to clients when I say this stuff. They want to feel involved in their business — I get that — but that means they focus on the aesthetics. It’s like a shop owner focusing on how nice the shelves are and never realizing they sit empty. Regardless, to the entrepreneur or director or staff person sitting in an office, there’s no reason people aren’t flocking to their service or product.

Telling people “no sliders” is not a hill I’m willing to die on. If I have to convince someone that no, we shouldn’t bold all the text on every page, publish everything as a PDF, and insert a slider on their homepage I will fight strongest for sanity with the bold button and not using PDFs of Word documents as web pages.

It’s rare I tell people to their face because I can’t fight these battles with a dozen people every week. And it is every week. But privately I’m thinking and we’re saying internally:

  • “I can’t get them to understand no one cares about their stuff as much as they do.”
  • “They think I can just make them number one for every Google search ever, but they won’t even say what they do if someone asks them to their face. I can’t make that work.”
  • “I worry they think I’m hiding something from them about Google or Facebook. Heck, “SEO” isn’t really a thing. There’s not much to optimize manually for anymore.”
  • “They want people to love them on Facebook, but everything they say is an ad or just a crappy reactionary post about it being Monday or whatever. Why can’t they just be humans?”
  • “They want to be a sensation on Instagram, but they take no photos and they’re not a visual brand.”
  • “So-and-so complained their site was boring. But their site just reflects what their organization is doing. But I can’t look at them and say, ‘Have you tried being more interesting?’”

This will get worse for the web before it gets better. I feel this way because in the last year or two more clients have been asking for transitions, slides, fades, and other glitzy junk no one cares about. This stuff is trickling down. But it makes them feel nice, like wearing a new pair of shoes. But no one cares about their shoes, either.

More people have asked me about auto-playing videos than ever before. It annoys these same people when other people do it, but they can’t connect that they’re just “other people”, too. It’s like people who complain about traffic. You are not in traffic. You are traffic.

We haven’t had a worse situation since I’d get asked every day, “Should we be using QR codes?”

Behind closed doors, those in the advertising and marketing industry can be pretty lucid about how much they also hate surveillance scripts and how awful they find these methods, while simultaneously encouraging their use.

At least know I stand against surveillance scripts and all this other garbage that makes web pages slow. But three things make a website great:

  1. Excellent original photography
  2. Original writing that shocks, surprises, or educates
  3. Producing these two things regularly

And all three are time-consuming, hard, and expensive. It’s a high burden when the alternative is slapping a slider and a spinning box on the side of a page and counting clicks. I have to assume every developer with a boss, committee, board, or layperson client has this problem, too.

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