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4 Steps to Improve Perceived Performance

Web Development

4 Steps to Improve Perceived Performance

Performance is an important measurement for every web application out there. Nobody wants to use an application that is slow to respond or feels sluggish. But what exactly does this mean? In the eyes of the user, performance is a tricky thing, and not as easy to measure as one might suspect. In this article, I want to introduce some basic concepts on how to make any web application feel faster and more responsive

Bear in mind that these concepts should be used in addition to classic page optimization.

Instant Feedback Is King

This is nearly self-explaining but I’ll mention it anyway, you should always give the user instant feedback. At the very least show the user an overlay including the well-known loading spinner to indicate that the application is doing something. And of course, don’t display the common ‘Loading…’ text but something more meaningful about what the application is currently doing. If the action will be running for more than 2 – 3 seconds it’s also a good idea to include an estimate of the time the user will have to wait. Or, even better, include a status bar for long-running actions if possible. BrowserStage here does a pretty good job at telling me exactly what is going on:

Never Make The User Wait

Most users do not like waiting on anything. Even Google includes the user’s wait time into the ranking of it’s search results. So any web application should try not to make the user wait more than absolutely necessary. Luckily most of the time it’s possible to update the UI even though the server as not performed the actual action. A good example would be deleting items in a list or marking articles as read in a feed reader. Just update the UI and send the command to the server, the user can move on without having to wait until the action is actually completed. Only if there is any problem or error the user should get notified. A great example for this would be Facebook. There you can like things and write comments without ever seeing a loading message. Only the errors are reported back to the user if necessary.

Don’t Ask Too Many Questions

Let’s face it: most web applications ask too many questions. In fact, this may be true for any software product out there. For example, let’s say the user wants to delete something inside the application. Our first impulse is to a create confirm dialog in which the user needs to click ‘Yes, I really want to delete that. The problem with this approach is that it interrupts the user’s workflow! Sure, if the user has selected this option by accident the confirm dialog will save him but most of the time the user (should) know what he is doing. So instead of displaying a confirmation message before the action takes place why not just run with it and show the user an easy way out in case he did do it by accident? Gmail does this quite nicely:

Predict The User’s Next Action

This last point can be a tricky thing but it can be worth the effort if done right. In many applications, the user is following the same workflow over and over again while he or she is using the application. So why not take advantage of this and preload the next step based on this knowledge? Let’s say we have a list of daily reports. We can say that in most cases the user will pick the latest report to inspect. So the application preloads this in the background and if the user does in fact select this entry it is displayed almost instantly.

Conclusion

As you can see it’s not that hard to make a web application feel even faster than it is. Of course, sometimes you have long-running actions or actions that cannot be undone and you have to implement some methods to protect the user. But especially when it matters most, onboarding new users, the above methods can improve the perceived performance dramatically!

Photo by dodge challenger1

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