Why Website Speed And Page Load Times Are So Important To Your Online Readers
How slow is your website when accessed by a typical reader with an average Internet connection? Find out now: Check out Google Webmaster Tools, or go to Alexa.com and type your website URL, or do a test on GTMetrix and see where your page load times stand compared to your top competitors. If you are getting Ds and Fs on GTMetrix and if Alexa and GWT say your site is slower than 90% of the other websites, you are positively in trouble.
Why? Two reasons stand out:
- Google now ranks your website depending on the speed that your pages take to load inside a web browser.
- Response times of your website determine whether online readers are going to dive into your snappy content or whether they will get so frustrated by waiting for it, that they will leave even before having seen it.
Photo credit: Clipart
Though the research data has been around for quite a while now, web publishers tend to forget that beyond a five seconds wait an online reader will get impatient and after ten, he / she will likely decide to go somewhere else.
"Slowness makes such an impact that it can become one of the brand values customers associate with a site".
A website that is responsive and fast-loading makes the user feel empowered and in-control, whereas long page load times make readers impatient, frustrated and increasingly resistant to your brand or proposition.
These are the key reasons why any serious web publisher today should devote time and resources to check, verify, test and optimize the performance, speed and responsiveness of its online content, no matter what the format.
To appreciate in greater depth and detail the impact and consequences that slow loading web pages cause on your online readers, usability expert Jakob Nielsen has granted MasterNewMedia official permission to share in full his latest research update on this very topic.
Here it is:
Website Response Times
by Jakob Nielsen
Website Speed and Page Load Times: Before / After
Slow page rendering today is typically caused by server delays or overly fancy page widgets, not by big images.
Users still hate slow sites and don't hesitate telling us.
Users really care about speed in interaction design.
13 years ago, I wrote a column called "The Need for Speed," pointing out how much users hated slow-loading web pages. Back then, big images were the main cause of response-time delays, and our guideline recommended that you keep images small.
Today, most people have broadband, so you might think that download times are no longer a usability concern.
And yes, actual image download is rarely an issue for today's wireline users (though images can still cause delays on mobile devices).
Still, response times are as relevant as ever. That's because responsiveness is a basic user interface design rule that's dictated by human needs, not by individual technologies.
In a client usability study we just completed, for example, users complained that "it's being a little slow."
Why Website Speed and Page Load Times Do Matter
Responsiveness matters for two reasons:
- Human limitations, especially in the areas of memory and attention (as further discussed in our seminar on the human mind and usability).
We simply don't perform as well if we have to wait and suffer the inevitable decay of information stored in short-term memory.
- Human aspirations. We like to feel in control of our destiny rather than subjugated to a computer's whims.
Also, when companies make us wait instead of providing responsive service, they seem either arrogant or incompetent.
A snappy user experience beats a glamorous one, for the simple reason that people engage more with a site when they can move freely and focus on the content instead of on their endless wait.
In a recent study for our seminar on brand as experience, we asked users what they thought about various websites they had used in the past.
So, their responses were based not on immediate use (as in normal usability studies), but on whatever past experiences were strong enough to form memories. Under these conditions, it was striking to hear users complain about the slowness of certain sites.
Slowness (or speed) makes such an impact that it can become one of the brand values customers associate with a site.
(Obviously, "sluggish" is not a brand value that any marketing VP would actively aim for, but the actual experience of using a site is more important than slogans or advertising in forming customer impressions of a brand.)
Indeed, we get findings related to website speed almost every time we run a study.
When sites shave as little as 0.1 seconds off response time, the outcome is a juicy lift in conversion rates.
Today or the 1990s? Same effect.
How Online Readers React To Page Load Times
The three response-time limits are the same today as when I wrote about them in 1993 (based on 40-year-old research by human factors pioneers):
- 0.1 seconds gives the feeling of instantaneous response - that is, the outcome feels like it was caused by the user, not the computer.
This level of responsiveness is essential to support the feeling of direct manipulation (direct manipulation is one of the key GUI techniques to increase user engagement and control - for more about it, see our principles of interface design seminar).
- One second keeps the user's flow of thought seamless.
Users can sense a delay, and thus know the computer is generating the outcome, but they still feel in control of the overall experience and that they're moving freely rather than waiting on the computer.
This degree of responsiveness is needed for good navigation.
- Ten seconds keeps the user's attention.
From one to ten seconds, users definitely feel at the mercy of the computer and wish it was faster, but they can handle it.
After ten seconds, they start thinking about other things, making it harder to get their brains back on track once the computer finally does respond.
A ten-second delay will often make users leave a site immediately. And even if they stay, it's harder for them to understand what's going on, making it less likely that they'll succeed in any difficult tasks.
Even a few seconds' delay is enough to create an unpleasant user experience.
Users are no longer in control, and they're consciously annoyed by having to wait for the computer.
Thus, with repeated short delays, users will give up unless they're extremely committed to completing the task. The result?
You can easily lose half your sales (to those less-committed customers) simply because your site is a few seconds too slow for each page.
How Web Widgets Affect Website Speed: An Example
Instead of big images, today's big response-time sinners are typically overly complex data processing on the server or overly fancy widgets on the page (or too many fancy widgets).
Here's an example from a recent eyetracking study we conducted to generate new material for our seminar on fundamental guidelines for web usability.
The following gaze plots show two different users' behavior on the same page, which contained a slideshow widget in the top yellow box that required eight seconds to download:
Gaze plots from two different users: The blue dots indicate where users looked (one fixation per dot).
- The test participant in the top gaze plot fixated a few times within the big empty color block before the content downloaded, then spent the remaining time looking at the rest of the page. This user never looked at the big promotional space after it had rendered.
- The second user (bottom gaze plot) happened to be looking away from the screen during the eight seconds when the promotional content downloaded. Thus, the first time he looked at the page he saw it as intended, complete with the entire promo.
The slideshow occupies 23% of the page, not counting a footer that's not shown here.
The user who had to endure the download delay spent only 1% of her total viewing time within this space.
In contrast, the user who in effect received instantaneous page rendering (because he didn't look until it was done), spent 20% of his viewing time within the slideshow area.
Although eight seconds might not seem like a big delay, it's enough to kill this big promo that the company's web team probably spent weeks designing. If they had allocated the space to something that rendered in one second instead of eight, they would have achieved much better results.
Website Speed Matters More To You Than To Your Online Readers
Response times are a matter of user experience: How much time does it take before the computer is ready to serve the user?
The reasons behind delays don't matter to users. All they know is that they're getting poor service, which is annoying.
Big images in 1997. Slow servers or overly fancy widgets in 2010. Same effect.
Make it snappy, and you'll have a big leg up on the competition and their slow sites.
Additional Resources On Website Speed and Page Load Times
Responsiveness, flow, and responsible widget design are all topics covered in the full day seminars at the annual Usability Week conference:
- Application Design One: Page-Level Building Blocks for Feature Design
- Application Usability Two: Dialogue and Workflow Design
For more information on how you can speed up the performance of your website, please check these comprehensive MasterNewMedia guides:
- How To Speed Up Your Website - Part 1
- How To Speed Up Your Website - Part 2
- Improve web Pages Load Times: Practical Advice On How To Speed Up Your Site - The Pingdom Report
About Jakob Nielsen
Jakob Nielsen, Ph.D., is a user advocate and principal of the Nielsen Norman Group which he co-founded with Dr. Donald A. Norman (former VP of research at Apple Computer). Until 1998 Jakob was a Sun Microsystems distinguished engineer. Dr. Nielsen founded the "discount usability engineering" movement for fast and cheap improvements of user interfaces and has invented several usability methods, including heuristic evaluation.
Website Speed and Page Load Times: Before / After - Facebook I-Skey-Piz-Uhm and ZCars
Selected Additional Resources On Website Speed and Page Load Times - Erkin Sahin
How Web Widgets Affect Website Speed: An Example - Mipan
Why Website Speed and Page Load Times Do Matter - Pubmatic
Other Images - Clipart