On the web, size matters

John Ohno on 2017-02-13

The web has a problem. Most web sites (weighted by volume of traffic) are made by and for wealthy able westerners with fast computers and fast connections, and are borderline unusable by anybody outside that group. What makes this a problem is that these websites are inaccessible for stupid reasons.

Web designers have adopted a cargo cult programming mentality. While cargo cult programming in real languages mostly just makes code hard to read for other programmers (idempotent imports, shared libraries, & the removal of unused symbols limit bloat at runtime), on the web bloat accumulates quickly. We use third party pixel trackers for analytics (often several different ones), CDNs for displaying static text (and RDBMSes for storing static text), CSS for styling (and JavaScript for modifying the CSS, and JavaScript for modifying the HTML, and JavaScript for modifying the other JavaScript), and we use automatic generators for building structures that would be less effort to write by hand. We force styles and behaviors on users based on our large screens and fast CPUs and hoards of RAM, and the users (if they are sufficiently savvy) fight back with extensions that chop out portions of our websites based on lossy heuristics.

We don’t need to be at war with our users, and shouldn’t be. Rendering a blog post shouldn’t involve twenty HTTP requests, a bunch of JavaScript, multiple draws (as new styles override previously loaded ones), and downloading as much content as the original Doom. Choosing bloated cargo-cult methods are, essentially, discrimination: discrimination against anyone with slow internet (i.e., most of the world) or slow CPUs (anyone who didn’t upgrade their computer in the past five years — i.e., the middle class). Too much forced style information (or too many widgets and sidebars) constitutes discrimination as well: against anyone who is blind (and thus must listen to every label and alt-tag in the order in which they occur in the original HTML) or has poor vision (and thus requires higher contrast and larger fonts — ruining any kind of overly-precious color or layout dickery). Fancy style and layout is an art, and has its place, but its place is in print magazines, where style doesn’t actively defeat usability.

It’s ultimately up to you, as a web designer, whether or not you want to exclude these groups. (Many things developed in the Valley are ultimately absolutely useless outside the Valley, and people often have no problem with that: it’s where the money is.) But, if you think reaching a sufficiently wide audience is worth making the occasional design snob feel scandalized, here are some tips:

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