Saturday, November 8, 2008

Speeding up

Click to see the pingdom November report for we launched a new version of and all our 58 country sites. The sites are now optimized for screen width 1024 pixels rather than 800, but the biggest change is in performance. Since we started working with optimization back in March/April this year, load time for the home page has been reduced to a third of what it was. A big benefit for users!

You may think this has been achieved by stripping the page of images and functionality, but no, quite to the contrary images are larger than before and all content and functionality is still there. Instead we have made a lot of improvements behind the scene.

I'll give most of the credit to a tool called YSlow that I have written about in a previous post. that is very helpful in guiding us in our work. This is an add-on to the Firefox browser that analyzes your page and scores all elements.

It may come as a surprise to many that the amount of content is only of marginal importance, it is all the overhead that slows down loading, especially the number of elements in a page.

When we started optimizing we had 64 elements in the home page, this is now down to 18.

A tool that can help you understand this better is pingdom. Here are links to our reports for March and November respectively, showing the improvements that we have made. A great feature with pingdom is that it saves your results so you can make comparisons over time.

When we started out YSlow gave the homepage a score of F (56/100), now the score is A (96/100). But we're still not at the end of the road. Our main focus so far has been on the top pages as they receive the most traffic. The pages further down the hierarchy have also benefited from these improvements, but is addition they have their own issues that require further investigation.

When we install new hardware later this year we will also start gzipping more content than now, as we have been holding back some elements for fear of putting too much load on the servers.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

The challenge of translations

courtesy of have 28 languages on ABB's web site, and sometimes I wonder if translations are correct or not. Hopefully we're not doing as badly as the Swansea council in this example. When they sent the English text for translation they got a prompt reply.

Unfortunately, the e-mail response said in Welsh: "I am not in the office at the moment. Please send any work to be translated".

Screen resolution - an eternal dilemma

Those of you who have been visiting ABB's web site recently may have noticed that it is still in 800x600 pixels. And so is this blog by the way, that is the standard width for all Google-hosted blogs.

But many sites have moved a step up the ladder to 1024 px width. My favorite news site changed a while ago, and I've noticed Facebook recently followed suit.

Only 3 % of our users still have screen size 800x600 and the number keeps falling.

But that is not the whole picture. Many users with better screens do not maximize their browser, so the active window is actually smaller than it could be. I've seen recent statistics (I've lost the link, sorry!) indicating that about 20 % have an active window that is less than 1024.

We know from all user testing that people hate horizontal scrolling, and they will certainly not do it just to see what is outside their current screen. When you have millions of users, one in five makes for a lot of people!

But at the same time we're facing a challenge from the opposite side and that is the dilemma; more than 50% of our users have a screen wider than 1024 px.

I've noticed that many use "screen size" and "screen resolution" as if they were synonyms, but they're not. Some years ago a 14" screen would be 800 pixels wide, today it is often 1400 px. As a consequence all elements shrink with the site itself, making it difficult to read on a more "modern" screen. A 9 pt font that looks okay on an 800 screen looks like a 5 pt font on a state-of-the-art laptop. Hopelessly small! So over time you need to increase the font size to accommodate these users.

In the end we have decided to increase the site to 1024 px, despite all the work it takes to redo a site with more than a hundred thousand pages. But what tipped the scale may have been something else; 800 px has started looking old fashioned. It's not about vanity, it's about making the right first impression to users; if the design looks outdated, users may believe the content is outdated as well.

Next weekend we plan to launch the new design. And as we make the change we have also used to opportunity to refresh the use of images as well as optimizing performance and improving usability in different ways. I hope to get back to that once we have launched.