The Next Billion Users Part 1: Performance and Progressive Web Apps

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  • 8/2/2018

    How much do you rely on the internet? How important is it to your business, your household and your social life? To what degree would it affect you if the sites you rely on stopped working for a week—or if they never worked well at all?

    It took over two decades to connect 2 billion people to the internet, with nearly all traffic accessed through desktop computers. As quickly as smartphones became ubiquitous, they also advanced enough to convey impactful experiences smoothly and reliably. At least, this is the case for you and me.

    The next billion users, on the other hand, will be using almost exclusively mobile devices, and not of the sort that can tear through a media-rich home page with swipe navigation and parallax video backgrounds.

    These first-time users are from emerging markets in Asia, specifically India, Pakistan and Indonesia, and are likely to face problems arising from:

    • Low-cost smartphones with basic hardware, limiting everything from performance and storage to battery life and display size.
      A web site designed to be beautiful on a touch-enabled, 1080x1920 screen might not work at all on a 320x240 screen with a set of radially-oriented arrow buttons.
    • The high cost of data, inconsistent connectivity and limited connection speeds.
      According to information supplied by Jana, data in India costs low-wage workers more than three times what people pay in the United States with respect to number of hours worked to pay for the usage. Much of this data might be downloaded to power features that ultimately won’t even work on their devices. Some of it could be for features that actually make the page less usable on their devices while catering to more powerful devices.

    The strategic solution to this problem is a combination of balance and empathy resulting in careful decision-making. Embracing limitations and making sites more able to widely perform will ultimately let you market better to the current billions of users as well thanks to improving general performance and content accessibility.

    So, What Can I Do?

    While the vast majority of the benefits come through making changes in fundamental project decisions and motivations, there are a few new technologies that can add significantly to the experiences of the next billion users.

    Slow initial loading experiences can be corrected by using critical styles and asynchronous loading so some content can be accessed before the rest of the page is available. Critical styles are stylesheet rules which address only content that’s immediately visible so the first view of the page isn’t reliant on a separate stylesheet request. Asynchronous loading tells the page a script can work on that page after everything has loaded, so there’s no reason to hold up other interactive functionality on its behalf.

    One of the most powerful new technologies is called cache-first networking, which can make the page available offline. An offline page can leverage additional techniques to store users’ changes to their data and sync those changes back to the server once connectivity is restored.

    A website which leverages techniques such as these is called a Progressive Web App. Google defines Progressive Web Apps as reliable, fast and engaging. To the first world, this speed boost is a luxury which can make seconds of difference, if even that.

    These tiny time periods are important: They can mean the difference between a bounce and a conversion. However, what is a blip of temporary annoyance to a user on a modern network can become a serious inconvenience or even an insurmountable hurdle for users living with developing-world conditions.

    This is one facet in the challenge of inclusion for the next billion users. Marketing to them requires a significant shift in perspective, which cannot be limited to solving one type of problem. The other major area of concern is localization, an equally sprawling challenge, encompassing language, culture, geography and law.

    Follow up on this topic in the second installment of our Next Billion Users Series, here.

    Need assistance making your site more accessible for your current users and the next billion users? Send us a message—our ace team of developers is here to help!
    About the author::Jayme Frantz is a front-end developer on thunder::tech's Development Team. When she's not coding, she's traveling with her magenta-haired Russ troll, Oswald.
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