Devolving Your Web Site

Usually, my columns are filled with ideas about how to enliven your site and enrich the user experience with the latest technologies and the most recent advances in customer experience. American trends have consistently shown a widespread increase in cable modem and DSL use, so the ability to add more advanced features to sites seems obvious.

But there’s another trend in North America: Internet use beyond the PC has finally reached critical mass. Other countries achieved this years ago; we’re just catching up. What does this mean for Web site evolution? As much as they must become more advanced for broadband users, they must also be greatly simplified for other devices.

This month, I’m out of the office a lot, traveling. To ensure I’m always connected, I have a cell phone that syncs with Microsoft Exchange and a broadband modem for my laptop that connects to a cellular network.

While both devices are capable of advanced user experiences, my Internet connection has been a bottleneck. I’m currently in a rural part of America, and my broadband modem can’t connect to the 3G (define) networks. My laptop’s Internet connection is painfully slow and unreliable. I no longer check some sites I normally check daily as they don’t devolve nicely with a slow connection. With my PDA, it’s worse. Most sites just display poorly on it and take far too long to load, due to heavy graphics. Some sites offer mobile versions, but most don’t.

If They Can Do It, So Can You

Microsoft Outlook lets you download just message headers when a connection is slow. This has been a saving grace for me when I travel. Web sites should be able to do the same thing. I usually check my friends’ MySpace pages every couple days. I haven’t looked for a month, however, because their pages are too slow. They all have fancy (and large) background images and songs that automatically play when you load the pages. MySpace loads these elements first and page content afterwards.

MySpace needs to devolve more elegantly. In the case of a slow connection, it should sacrifice background songs and images in favor of content. If your site uses a large Flash container to show today’s top products, you should to have a similar devolution plan. On a slow connection, replace that Flash container with a static image or, better yet, text.

Similarly, if your site uses a lot of AJAX (define) or JavaScript, you must make sure the site remains functional when those features aren’t available. I was on a help site trying to download a driver. I was on my PDA, as the driver was for the USB modem I was installing on my laptop. I was going to download it from my PDA, then transfer it to my laptop. I thought that was a really smart way to solve the problem…until I get to the last page of the help section. Once I found the right page for the modem (which took a while on my PDA), I had to select the operating system from a drop-down box. There was no “go” button, because some JavaScript automatically advanced the page when the user selected something from the drop-down. Unfortunately, my PDA doesn’t support that JavaScript command. I was left staring at the page, knowing I was only one page away from the driver, yet unable to reach it.

Not Just Slow Connections

This isn’t just about slow connections. I’ve written before about the importance of making your site accessible for people with disabilities. As technologies evolve, we must always ensure the new user experiences have versions that work everywhere.

There are two factors at work here: new devices make getting online without a computer easy. And “access anywhere” unfortunately doesn’t mean “fast access anywhere.” Not only must our sites devolve based on the hardware accessing them (computers, PDAs, etc.), they also must devolve based on access speed. That means understanding the difference between a laptop with slow access and a PDA with fast access, and everything in between.

Thoughts, comments, questions? Let me know.

Until next time…

Jack

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