Web 2.0 for low bandwidth

Web2forDev

Tariq Khokar

Web 2.0 technologies add to bandwidth but it doesn’t change the fact that you still need to design for lower bandwidths, and to take the same care as you should have been doing with web 1.0 technology.

What’s the difference between web 2.0 and the web as we previously knew it?
Fundamentally, the technology underlying both is the same, web 2.0 just has a few extra bits added. Web 2.0 is interesting because there are still a lot of things that have to be fixed with ‘web 1.0’, if we can call it that.

Do those ‘few extra bits’ make web 2.0 more complicated? Do users need greater bandwidth to make use of it?
The rules of the game are the same, we’re just playing with bigger toys. It’s true that most web 2.0 technologies add to this bandwidth overhead, but it doesn’t change the fact that you still need to design for lower bandwidths, and so need to take the same care as you should have been doing with web 1.0 technology.

Aptivate has compiled a set of guidelines, tips and tools for web designers. They recommend that web pages should be around 20–25 kB in size. But the front page for the Web2forDev conference, for example, is over 300 kB. For users trying to access this site from the University of Ghana, where we have worked, it would take 15–60 seconds to load – if it were to download entirely. To me that’s not acceptable. Any agency involved in creating websites should design them with users in low-bandwidth areas in mind.

What steps can designers, or anyone else, take to improve their websites?
There are a lot of simple steps they can take. At the very least, if the goal is to design a site for a particular bandwidth, then that has to colour the entire process. One first step is to use Loband, an online tool developed by Aptivate that simplifies web pages so that they can be downloaded quickly over slow internet connections. To use the service, the user needs only to type the URL (web address) of the required page into the bar at the top of the page, and click ‘Go’. Loband then downloads the web page, removes all the heavy content, such as images, scripts, etc., and sends it on to the user. Usually, Loband can improve the speed of the site by five or ten times.

Designers can do a number of other relatively simple things, such as avoid huge scripts, minimize the number of requests that go back to the server, etc.

With many web 2.0 tools – RSS feeds, for example – users are directed straight to particular web pages, rather than entering the site via the home page. Does that mean that every page on a website has to be suitable for users with low bandwidth?
RSS feeds are one really valuable side of web 2.0. The idea that you can pull out content from a site without any formatting, that’s a real bandwidth advantage. There are problems with the uptake of RSS because of the lack of user understanding, but that’s a very good example of how to extract information without taking up much bandwidth. I don’t have specific figures, but I suspect that most users now access the content they want via search engines rather than navigating through sites. So yes, the onus is very much on web designers to optimize every single web page, and not just the home page.

Web 2.0 consists of various tools, including multimedia sharing, RSS feeds, wikis, etc. But the fact that you can use all of these things presumably doesn’t mean you should use them all?
Definitely not. You have to go back to fundamentals, and for me that’s all about usability – making it easy for users to access the information on a site. Why, for example, did Google take off when there was already a much more mature search engine in Alta Vista? The main reason for Google’s success was that it presents its search results in one text field, so it is very fast and very simple. Usability is what drives people towards a service. If all the fancy features can be included without sacrificing usability, that’s great. But if they can’t, then something is wrong. The goal should be to provide pages with a load time of about 10 seconds. If you can do that with all the content you want to put in there, go for it – but if not, think again. Users will appreciate a fast site that doesn’t have videos and pictures far more than a slow site that does.

Won’t users who are used to broadband get bored with sites if they are too basic?
Even people with fast internet connections will have a better experience on a site that is modest but fast than on one that is more complicated but slow. Sites like Google Video or YouTube don’t work as fast as web 1.0 websites, and that’s a genuine cause of frustration among broadband users. Users still have a better experience with a slightly less complicated site regardless of bandwidth.

So your basic advice to web designers is to keep it simple?
Yes, keep it simple, but ultimately go back to the needs of the user. For any system, the main constraint is usability. Most users will get annoyed if it takes longer than 10 seconds for a page to load, or if their browser can’t display the page correctly. If designers can’t meet these basic demands then they need to go back to the drawing board.

Tariq Khokar is head of sector services with Aptivate, an NGO based in Cambridge, UK, that provides IT services for international development.

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More information

Aptivate has compiled a guide to designing websites for users in low-bandwidth areas. Web Design Guidelines for Low Bandwidth.

Loband

Audio: Low bandwidth Web 2.0

An interview with Tariq Khokar, at the Web2forDev conference in Rome, September 2007, talking to ICTUpdate's Jim Dempsey, to explain some simple steps to make website available even to those with low bandwidth connections.

Click the 'play' button below to start playing this podcast

26 October 2007

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