You can find out more about Jeremy at adactio.com.
Jeremy Keith 00:00
In short, yes, we have absolutely ruined the web for a lot of people.
Gerry McGovern 00:11
Welcome to World Wide Waste, a podcast about how digital is killing the planet, and what to do about it. In this session, I’m chatting with Jeremy Keith. Jeremy is a philosopher of the internet. Every time I see him speak, I’m struck by his calming presence, his brilliant mind and his deep humanity. Jeremy makes websites with Clearleft. His books include DOM Scripting, Bulletproof Ajax, HTML5 for Web Designers, Resilient Web Design, and, most recently, Going Offline. Hailing from Erin’s green shores, Jeremy maintains his link with Irish traditional music, running the community site The Session. He also indulges a darker side of his bouzouki playing in the band Salter Cane. You can find out more about Jeremy at adactio.com.
According to WHO, mobile traffic went up from about 55% pre coronavirus pandemic to 70% once the crisis hit. And I’ve seen similar figures come from other health environments in Canada and other areas – some of their coronavirus pages were reaching over 80% in the Canadian government. Yet we’re looking at situations where an average web page has gone from about 400Kb in 2005 to about 4 megabytes on average 10 years, 15 years later. A major study of about 5 million web pages last year by Backlinko found that the average time it takes to fully load a web page is 10.3 seconds on desktop, and it can be as long as 27 seconds on mobile. And the broad question I had – or a couple of questions – was: have we, in a way, ruined the web for a lot of people? And if so, how do we fix it? Now, they are huge questions, but maybe that’s a starter.
In short, yes, we have absolutely ruined the web for a lot of people. And I find it so exasperating, it’s flabbergasting, in that developers, designers, researchers – we spent all this time trying to figure out what do our customers want and what did they respond to well, and we’ll do A/B testing and we’ll figure out did this color button do better than that color button. And yet all the evidence staring us in the face is that faster websites will make you more money, give you happier customers, please everyone – and yet for some reason, that’s just ignored in favor of weirdly prioritized stuff like, ‘Oh, it’s so much more important that we have these great big images’ or this particular number of fonts or third-party things serving up ads.
It’s really bizarre to me how we kind of almost collectively choose to ignore the obvious, obvious way to improve the experience for everyone and improve a business’s bottom line in favor of fiddling with the details. That might make a slight difference, sure. You know, maybe this particular design is slightly better than that particular design, but the elephant in the room is just how long something is going to take to load. I mean, there’s a direct correlation with frustration. You know, faster websites mean happier users. It’s absolutely in no doubt. And I just don’t get it, to be honest. I don’t get how people can be working on the web claiming to be doing user centered design and yet, at the same time, ignoring this huge factor.
Lara Hogan wrote a whole book on web performance a few years back, and a lot of what she talked about was – I mean, it’s a lot about the technical side, but she really talked about creating a culture of performance, making sure everyone understood that, no matter what you’re doing to get a website out the door, you are in some way responsible for the performance. It’s absolutely flabbergasting to me and I just don’t get it.
Yeah. When I saw these stats coming from WHO, the images that started coming into my mind were, you know, a doctor or a nurse or a mother or a father using their mobile phone to try and access critical health information and waiting. And in some cases, if these people are not on big incomes, they’ve got older phones. They’ve got expensive data deals, because the poor always pay more in these processes. So this here is affecting people’s health and is potentially impacting who will live and who will die. Maybe that’s too extreme, in some ways, to look at it. But I’m sure there’s certain situations where people cannot access this information because the pages are too badly designed – they’re too big, they’re too heavy, they’re taking too long to download – and that impacts people’s lives. And yet, we blithely – no matter what we say, it doesn’t seem to make a difference.
Yeah. And if nothing else, mental health is affected by this. There have been studies to show that the experience of waiting for a slow website to load when you need to get that information is comparable to watching a horror movie in terms of how your body is reacting to the stress of the situation.
Yeah, I saw that. Think of how that is doubled or trebled when you’re looking for symptomatic information for the coronavirus or you’re looking for other vital stuff that you need. Or you’re trying to sign up for unemployment benefit, or a whole panoply of other type of services that you make. You know, why?
Here’s one way of looking at it. What we’re going through right now – the entire world, basically – every country individually is one giant edge case. And edge cases are the kind of thing where, when they come up in the process of designing or building a website – somebody brings up ‘Oh, but what about this situation? What about that situation? This person on a poor internet connection, this person who’s low income’ and stuff – generally the reaction will be something like, ‘Oh, that’s an edge case.’ And there’s an unsaid follow-on to that sentence ‘that’s an edge case’, which is ‘and so we won’t deal with it’. That’s an edge case, so we won’t deal with it. When, really, we could be saying, ‘That’s an edge case and how will we fix it?’ Because what we’ve learned from the world of inclusive design for years is if you take care of the extremes, the middle takes care of itself, right? If you take care of what Eric Meyer calls the stress cases – rather than edge cases – take care of the stress cases, and you’ll make something that’s better for everyone. And I guess what happens is when suddenly everyone gets to experience what a stress case, what the edge case is like, then maybe finally people start thinking about this. And lo and behold, suddenly websites are able to find that they can create the light versions of a static version, strip away those images, strip away those scripts and those web fonts and stuff. And it turns out that what people really need is the content, which is usually text, right? It is normally some text on a screen, not technically difficult to get out there. But it seems to require us to all collectively experience an edge case in order to have the empathy, I guess, to deal with it.
Maybe. But another argument to that would be in the sense that is it really an edge case? Weren’t there just millions of people on crappy mobile phones trying to do stuff that were being excluded before this crisis?
Absolutely, yeah. And this is something I think as an industry we’ve done for years with many things, which is we will come to a collective agreement – I like to use the term ‘collective consensual hallucination’ basically – that let’s all agree that this is the way things are and ignore any data that shows otherwise. So a good example was – this is a much more simple and from simpler times example, but back in the 90s into the early 2000s, we were designing layouts on the web and said, ‘Well let’s all assume everyone has a monitor that’s 640 pixels wide.’ And then at some point we came to the collective agreement that, no, 800 pixels wide is the monitor everybody has. And then it became 1024 pixels wide. We all settled on like 960 pixels as this ideal width. And that was all based on just this collective hallucination. Yeah, let’s just all agree that that’s the truth, even though it was never the truth. People were always on different sized screens.
And what comes along is some kind of event that seems to shake things up and seems to show that, oh, we’re in a new world now. But actually, all it’s doing is shining light on the existing situation. That happened when mobile suddenly burst on the scene in 2007 or so with the iPhone and other fully featured smartphones. ‘Oh no, now suddenly people have different size devices, and they’re on different network speeds.’ And actually, no, people weren’t suddenly in those situations. It’s just you started paying attention to those situations more, right? So it was shining a light on something that was already there. And so yeah, you’re absolutely right that what’s happening now with the systems being stressed by things like the coronavirus is it’s shining a light on a situation that was already there. People are already very unevenly distributed with things like not just network speed but processing speed on their devices. We like to think smartphones are very fast and stuff. Well, maybe yours is, but that is definitely not the case. So what’s happening is, hopefully, things are coming to the surface that aren’t new. What’s coming to the surfaces is this is the way things always were.
Right, right. You joked when we were swapping emails about this that we should stop talking about images and videos etc as assets and start calling them liabilities. But what’s the underlying drivers here that make so many of us want – and I include myself, throughout my career – to have the highest resolution and the highest quantity of images and videos possible, even in a resolution where we can’t actually see the difference, and we can’t actually hear the difference, but we want that. What is it? What’s the human instinct? And how do we change that mindset?
I think again, there’s a disconnect in the process we go through when we’re making something, and then how that thing is experienced when it’s actually on the web, which is dependent on network speeds and processing speeds and stuff. So we’ll use things like graphic design tools, and in Photoshop or Figma or Sketch – whatever tool you’re using – there’s no difference whether you’re pulling in a large image or a small image, a high resolution or low resolution. You don’t feel any lag, right? So if you’re moving things around in a graphic design tool, the graphic design tool doesn’t respond more slowly or more quickly depending on the weight of those assets or liabilities. Now maybe if it did, maybe if you literally found it harder to design when you were using those high-resolution, high-bandwidth things, maybe we would start to behave in a more lean way and only reach for those things when it really counts.
I think that, in any design medium, you need to have an understanding of what’s cheap and what’s expensive. To explain what I mean: if you’re a print designer, then you’re used to the idea that you can have as many different fonts as you want, as many different weights of the font. It’s cheap, it doesn’t cost anything more to do that. Whereas – and presume this is for let’s say a poster or a flyer, something that’s going to be printed out – the number of colors you use might be expensive, right? That might be something where you might have to constrain yourself to a two-color or four-color palette. Now that’s different on the web. In fact, it’s exactly the opposite way around. On the web, use as many colors as you want, because colors are free, basically. But every time you add a new font or an extra weight, you are increasing the size. So having an understanding of what’s cheap and what’s expensive is important, but I think you kind of have to feel it to understand it and we don’t feel it when we’re designing.
There’s a real disconnect between the process of design and what’s actually experienced by people. Even when we are loading websites, we’re loading the local copies that we have on our machines, and we’re evaluating how things look and how things behave, but not in terms of the arrow of time, right? We don’t throttle our connections to simulate what it will actually be like for different people loading that. And yet, as I said, the number one factor in user experience, in my opinion, is speed, is time, the arrow of time. It doesn’t matter how beautiful the thing is if it’s going to take 30 seconds for it to be loaded, right. So there’s this real disconnect in our experience as we’re designing and building something to the end user’s experience.
I wonder, Jeremy, you’ve touched on something there, a design challenge. Can we design for feel in some way in the design process itself so that designers feel a bit of the pain as they’re making a decision? Is that something that the designers of the tools of designers can be thinking about?
I think it’s maybe more of a cultural thing. There are ways of getting people to get it. And I’ve seen some people share these ideas – like every day of the week, they have a different kind of exercise they’ll do. On one day, they’ll deliberately throttle their connection. On another day, they deliberately use a different browser than they’re used to. And another day, they switch to monochrome display instead of full color, things like this. I know that the New York Times, I think they had something like a low-bandwidth Friday or something where, for literally everyone in the office, their internet connection was throttled to try and get that feeling for what it’s like to experience that. So I think those kind of exercises can be good. I mean, I said it’s a shame that the design tools, they don’t enforce that feeling. And it would be wonderful if they did make it more painful the more expensive your assets were. But I don’t see many people signing up to buy that software then.
So we started talking about digital waste, about files and formats and storing stuff and keeping copies, and about how the waste dynamic is changing because so much now is stored in the cloud. And the cloud is hugely more energy intensive and thus wasteful than your hard drive, than what you do locally.
And here’s something interesting where it does tie into the waste question: in terms of digital preservation – which is something I actually think is really important, as is preservation of our culture, preservation of what we create – there’s a term in digital preservation called LOCKSS, which is ‘lots of copies keep stuff safe’. And I think broadly it’s true, that if you have just one copy of something, the chances of it surviving a long time are slim, but as soon as it’s distributed and it’s got a reasonable license attached to it, then it stands a greater chance of surviving. But, you see, the downside is that now you’re distributing, and again, that feels like a victimless thing, right? I’m just making multiple copies of something. But what you’re actually doing is using up more energy. So I am a little conflicted here, because I’m a great believer in digital preservation and I think, broadly speaking, the principle of LOCKSS, lots of copies keeps stuff safe, is true. But I’m also aware then of the cost of having too many copies of things.
I then brought up what I term the Zettabyte Armageddon, about how we are creating and storing so much data. In the last two years, we have created more data than was created in all of previous history. And 90% of this data is crap.
Now to say that 90% of the stuff being created is crap. Sure. Okay, that’s probably objectively true. Most of it is crap. But I’ll also say this: you don’t know the future value of something being created today. So let’s say our definition of crap is going to include some teenager posting a blog post about something we don’t care about, or some YouTube videos – something that is just objectively not important. Fine. But that teenager may turn out to be the first person to walk on Mars. That teenager may turn out to be a future president of the United States. But we don’t know the value of something created today to the future. You talked about cuneiform tablets, which are usually valuable sources of information to us, and most of them are about accounting and porn. Those are the bits of everyday life. So I actually think we should be preserving these useless bits of self-expression that people do all the time. As Patrick Kavanagh would have said, ‘wherever life pours forth ordinary plenty’. Because once they’ve been created, there isn’t a cost. The cost came at the point of creation. Now, we could encourage people to be circumspect in what they create, and maybe don’t upload everything and maybe self-edit a bit. But once something is on a hard drive, unless somebody requests that file, it isn’t harming.
Okay, two things there. The hard drive, as we said, has a bigger energy cost, significant energy costs and pollution. And the hard drive will not last forever.
Right. But that energy cost came when it was created. 80% of the cost was when it was created regardless of what’s going to end up on that hard drive.
Exactly. So buy less hard drives.
You know, we are buying so much storage. That storage costs the earth in materials and in energy. There’s much higher manufacturing energy for a digital product and for a physical product because of the complexity of the materials and the manufacturing process. So that hard drive costs money and costs energy and creates waste. Just because it’s all created, all the waste has been generated, does not mean it’s not waste. And if we now buy 100 hard drives instead of 50 hard drives, that’s 50 extra hard drives that are causing the deforestation of the planet, etc. And they’ll need to be replaced in five years or 10 years. Where’s the data going to go when the hard drive corrodes?
No, that is a fair point. And Moore’s Law does come into this that, yes, it is expensive to produce hard drives these days, but 10 years ago it would have been 1000 times more expensive.
Oh a million times. But see, this is the problem, Jeremy. I think this is where it becomes core. You said it earlier about the cost: a close to zero cost is not a zero cost. We all must have the impression that it’s nothing. And another thing that’s happened with hard disks is that their prices have stabilized in the last three or four years. They’re not coming down. They’re not dropping in the exponential rates that they were dropping in previous times. So they seem to have stabilized in their pricing structure in the last four years. But we move on. But the idea is that this storage, even local – which I totally agree with you; it’s much, much better than the cloud – still has a cost because we had to manufacture that disk and that disk will not last as long cuneiform tablet. So if we have to replace a million hard drives in 10 years–
There’s this great blog post, actually, by a developer – Danny van Kooten is his name, and he’s got a blog post called ‘CO2 emissions on the web’. And he tried to trace his own contributions – he made a WordPress plugin. So it’s one file that gets distributed very broadly to lots of people. And he did the back of the napkin calculations for how much energy is being wasted, effectively, by what he’s put out there into the world because of multiple copies of this one thing. And I think that’s the area to focus our energy, the kind of unnecessary duplication.
But I think we need to think about the machines as well. You know, we’ve got 10 billion smartphones since 2007, and they don’t get recycled. About 10% of them, from the data, actually get recycled. We create as much e-waste every year – we create about 50 million tonnes, which is basically the same tonnage of all the commercial aircraft ever built. The machines that we use to access digital have a very short lifecycle. They last three to five years.
This is true, and this is something that I’m not keen on at all. I’ve had my phone now for many years. I don’t want to upgrade it. I’m happy with it; it does everything I want. So I agree, and it is it is kind of shocking. And we’re seeing right now the European Union stepping in with right to repair laws, which I think are super important so that people can make one device last a long time. Just to be a bit of an asshole here, though, I’m going to point to a little counter argument, because this is something that made me think as well. I saw an article a while back about this. Yes, there’s this wastage now of somebody buys a phone, they use it for a couple of years and then it ends up going to landfill. It’s not being recycled. That’s bad. That’s terrible. But what we’re not seeing is what would have been created and what would have been going to landfill had the phone not existed. So we’re not seeing landfills full of cameras, camcorders, dictaphones, photo albums – there’s all the stuff that is concentrated into a device. We can’t A/B test the universe, so we can’t compare the wastage. But you could imagine how much physical device wastage would be happening if phones hadn’t come along and kind of wiped out entire product lines of cameras and camcorders and dictaphones and all this stuff. But I’m kind of just being the asshole there, playing the devil’s advocate.
No, I think that’s a very interesting argument. And I mean, I love my smartphone. But I’ve started reducing my use of things. I used to always buy the biggest screens I could get and now I’m beginning to think, ‘Do I need this thing? Can I do it on my laptop?’ So I’m trying to do far more work on my laptop – just being conscious, not stopping. These devices are amazing. And that’s a brilliant point you brought up – the benefits. It’s not that this is all bad, but that we just become a bit more conscious of the cost of all this stuff.
I would say there’s an opportunity there as well. Let’s say you’re a device manufacturer trying to break into the smartphone field, which would be a very tough field to try and break into because you got these large companies that dominate it. Well, as Marty Neumeier is always saying, when someone else zigs, you should zag. So if all the advertising around smartphones is like oh, you need to get the latest and greatest one. It’s got the best features blah, blah. And so the general consensus is you upgrade a phone every couple of years. You get rid of your old one, you get a new one. Can you find a way to market the exact opposite, which is: buy our phone and it’ll last for a decade. Right? That would be a really interesting marketing pitch, and the larger companies just couldn’t compete with that because that is very much against how they sell things and what their business model is. Their business model is relying on that upgrading every couple of years. So there’s actually an opportunity here for smart companies, I think, to get in and market to people who are beginning more and more to think about ‘not only do I not need to upgrade, but I actively don’t want to’. I’m starting to feel almost like I’m being very encouraged to upgrade my phone, right? Almost shamed for having a very old phone at this point. Like you’re made to feel bad about it. And I would love if there was some company that said, ‘Hey, we’re going to cater to you. We’re going to make a phone that will last 10 years guaranteed.’
Totally. I mean, these are the ideas we need. These are the type of – ‘it’s cool to be old’. It’s cool to have the oldest thing, rather than that – we somehow shift the cultural Zeitgeist that has got in fast fashion. We buy five times more clothes than we did 20 years ago, and we wear them for half as long – that we shift it. It’s cool to have old clothes. You know, it’s cool to have old – but that’s a different cultural challenge. Let’s get back to some of the stuff, the areas that you’ve been writing about or thinking about. In particular, you’ve separated first-time visitors to a website and repeat visitors. And you think that there’s very energy sensible strategies for treating those type of visitors differently. Can you talk a little bit about that?
Right. And, of course, that comes from that model of thinking about making it easier for people and faster for people to do what they need to do. In relation to that, you’ve talked a good bit about concepts like progressive enhancement. Certainly my understanding of that is that it seems like a really positive mental model for developing what I would be thinking about – you know, not just a human experience, but an earth experience. It seems like an approach that is more economical with its philosophy and its use of materials. Could you talk a little bit about it?
Sure. Because I think there are some misunderstandings about progressive enhancement. I think some people think progressive enhancement limits you in terms of what you can do – ‘Oh, I can’t use the latest and greatest technologies if I’m using progressive enhancement’ – but actually that’s not true. You can use all the latest and greatest technologies, it’s just how you go about using them. So the idea with progressive enhancement is – again, you have to do a bit of a prioritization exercise to begin – you have to decide what’s fundamental, what is the one thing that my service offers that people need to be able to do. So that might be they need to be able to read this article, this piece of information, or they need to be able to fill in this form, they need to be able to click on this button to check out an item of clothing.
Once you’ve identified the core functionality – not all the functionality, the core functionality – then you say, ‘Okay, what technology can I use to make that as widely available to a vast number of people as possible?’ Now, that usually means boring technology. That usually means using the simplest possible technology – on the web, that’s probably going to be HTML, if you can get away with it. You know, an article just structured in paragraph elements, a form that’s just using straight-up input tags, right? Now this is where some people, I think, misunderstand progressive enhancement, because they kind of stop there. And they think, ‘Well, yeah, we could all build like that. But that would be a very boring website.’ And I agree, that would be a very boring website.
And I’m not dismissing the ‘everything else around that’. That ‘everything else’ stuff is usually how companies differentiate, and that’s where the user experience and the delighters and the really gorgeous little touches happen. That stuff is not to be diminished. I’m not saying don’t do that stuff. I’m just saying that stuff needs to be layered on top of a solid baseline of providing the bare minimum. Now what we’re seeing, interestingly enough, is in these emergency situations like the coronavirus, when sites start getting slammed with traffic, if they built things the right way, they can then peel back some of those layers, they can peel away some of those enhancements and just provide the core content – that base level stuff. So if you build with progressive enhancement, it means you can layer stuff on top. It also means you can then strip those layers away, which is hugely important in these kinds of times.
Wow, yeah. That sounds like a really important thing to be able to do. Just building on that or connected with that, Eric Meyer recently wrote an article about static – that pages should be delivered as static pages where possible, rather than dynamically driven from a database. What would be your opinions there?
Right? I tested this about a year ago on a site and found that a typical page coming from the database was taking about five seconds to fully load. And that if it was done as static, it was down to about two-and-a-half, three seconds. Would that seem like a reasonable proportion, that in many situations you could get that sort of rough differences in performance in the download if you went static with, as you said, the right type of pages, the informational type of pages?
Final question: from a web development and design perspective, what’s the biggest thing you’ve learned from this coronavirus pandemic so far?
Okay, so just a follow on to that. Is there anything that has disturbed that preset set of knowledge or perspectives or attitudes that you have? Is there anything that has – whether from web development or design or in general – made you begin to rethink something that you really believed before and that there’s a little seed of doubt? Or maybe now?
I would say not on the performance front, not on the idea that web pages should be leaner, and we shouldn’t be serving up – I haven’t seen anything to make me change my mind on that. In broader terms, though, maybe rethinking some things. Over the past few years there’s been lots of examples of how the internet’s terrible and all the negative consequences of what the internet does. And I have to say, over the past few weeks, there’s a lot more seeing how the internet can be a great place. And that’s kind of in a good way making me re-evaluate. I’ve even seen some people have quite large not changes of heart, but rebalancing, like my friend Maciej. He runs idlewords.com. For years, he’s been lobbying and working politically against surveillance capitalism, and the fact that these large companies on the internet are tracking us, tracking our movements and invading our privacy. And he’s not changing his mind about that. But now he’s seeing how, well, could we use that? Can we take this existing apparatus that’s in place and use it for better tracking of people who have the coronavirus, better tracking down of people who are one degree of separation away from someone who has the coronavirus? I mean, if we can do that for people who looked at an advertisement of bunny slippers, then if there’s a way to use that same technology to slow the spread of this virus, then should we be doing that? It brings up the interesting questions about liberty and freedom and security and all that. But that’s been an interesting one to observe. And I haven’t made my mind up on that in one way or the other, but it is an example of maybe re-evaluating pre-existing ideas about technology in light of this new situation.
Yeah, and maybe that’s a good way to end. We can’t help reinforcing our own ideas or looking for confirmation bias, but we should step back a little bit and see: are there things that we need to re-evaluate or rethink or come at from a different angle in this crucial moment in the history of the world? So I think you’ve given us loads of ideas, loads of thoughts and practical things to do, Jeremy. So I’d like to really thank you very much for your time. Just really appreciate you doing this.
Thank you for having me. Thanks for letting me vent. I tend to rant on and on once you wind me up and let me go.
Oh, that’s what we need. If you’re interested in these sorts of ideas, I published a book called World Wide Waste. You can find out more at gerrymcgovern.com/www. I hope you enjoyed this episode. If you’d like to be part of the conversation or community, hop on over to ThisisHCD.com, where you can join the Slack community and help shape future episodes and connect with other designers around the world. Or join the HCD newsletter, where you can win books and get updates. Subscribe to our content on Apple Podcasts or Spotify, and listen to any of our design podcasts, such as Getting Started in Design, Bringing Design Closer with Gerry Scullion; or Power of Ten with Andy Polaine; or Decoding Culture with Dr John Curran; ProdPod with Adrienne Tan; and EthnoPod with Jay Hasbrouck. Thanks for listening and see you next time.