A framework for web performance
Here at Clearleft, we’ve recently been doing some front-end consultancy. That prompted me to jot down thoughts on design principles and performance:
We continued with some more performance work this week. Having already covered some of the nitty-gritty performance tactics like font-loading, image optimisation, etc., we wanted to take a step back and formulate an ongoing strategy for performance.
When it comes to web performance, the eternal question is “What should we measure?” The answer to that question will determine where you then concentrate your efforts — whatever it is your measuring, that’s what you’ll be looking to improve.
I started by drawing a distinction between measurements of quantities and measurements of time. Quantities are quite easy to measure. You can measure these quantities using nothing more than browser dev tools:
- overall file size (page weight + assets), and
- number of requests.
I think it’s good to measure these quantities, and I think it’s good to have a performance budget for them. But I also think they’re table stakes. They don’t actually tell you much about the impact that performance is having on the user experience. For that, we need to enumerate moments in time:
- time to first byte,
- time to first render,
- time to first meaningful paint, and
- time to first meaningful interaction.
There’s one more moment in time, which is the time until DOM content is loaded. But I’m not sure that has a direct effect on how performance is perceived, so it feels like it belongs more in the category of quantities than time.
Next, we listed out all the factors that could affect each of the moments in time. For example, the time to first byte depends on the speed of the network that the user is on. It also depends on how speedily your server (or Content Delivery Network) can return a response. Meanwhile, time to first render is affected by the speed of the user’s network, but it’s also affected by how many blocking elements are on the critical path.
By listing all the factors out, we can draw a distinction between the factors that are outside of our control, and the factors that we can do something about. So while we might not be able to do anything about the speed of the user’s network, we might well be able to optimise the speed at which our server returns a response, or we might be able to defer some assets that are currently blocking the critical path.
So far, everything in our list of performance-affecting factors is related to the first visit. It’s worth drawing up a second list to document all the factors for subsequent visits. This will look the same as the list for first visits, but with the crucial difference that caching now becomes a factor.
Alright. Now it’s time to get some numbers for each of the four moments in time. I use Web Page Test for this. Choose a realistic setting, like 3G on an Android from the East coast of the USA. Under advanced settings, be sure to select “First View and Repeat View” so that you can put those numbers in two different columns.
I’m getting the same numbers for first render as first meaningful paint. That tells me that there’s no point in trying to optimise my font-loading, for example …which makes total sense, because adactio.com isn’t using any web fonts. But on a different site, you might see a big gap between those numbers.
I am seeing a gap between time to first byte and time to first render. That tells me that I might be able to get some blocking requests off the critical path. Sure enough, I’m currently referencing an external stylesheet in the
head of adactio.com—if I were to inline critical styles and defer the loading of that stylesheet, I should be able to narrow that gap.
My point is, you’re going to see very different distributions of numbers depending on the kind of site you’re testing. There’s no one-size-fits-all metric to focus on.
Now that you’ve got numbers for how your site is currently performing, you can create two new columns: one of those is a list of first-visit targets, the other is a list of repeat-visit targets for each moment in time. Try to keep them realistic.
Alright! Now I’ve got something to aim for. It might also be worth having an extra column to record which of the moments in time are high priority, which are medium priority, and which are low priority.
I think this is a fairly useful framework for figuring out where to focus when it comes to web performance. If you’d like to give it a go, I’ve made a web performance chart for you to print out and fill in. Here’s a PDF version if that’s easier for printing. Or you can download the HTML version if you want to edit it.
I have to say, I’m really enjoying the front-end consultancy work we’ve been doing at Clearleft around performance and related technologies, like offline functionality. I’d like to do more of it. If you’d like some help in prioritising performance at your company, please get in touch. Let’s make the web faster together.
This was originally posted on my own site.