To improve page speed, go easy on time-wasting graphics

To improve page speed, go easy on time-wasting graphics

BY JOHN MCCORMICK'|'SPECIAL TO GCN

A picture is worth a thousand words, but too many pictures can make a Web site essentially unusable.

If you want to make your site more visitor-friendly, consider three steps: reduce the number of images you use, reduce the size of images and reduce the size of image files. Note that the last of these is not the same as reducing the size of the images.

The performance improvement you get by eliminating a few unnecessary images can be amazing. When a well-known Washington business launched its Web site a few years ago, it took between eight and 12 minutes to load the initial page over a dial-up connection. Today it takes about 12 seconds.

The major difference is that the site initially had more than 120 graphical elements, many of which were photographs. Today's site has no photographs and only a few other images, which is why it loads 50 times faster.

The lesson is simple: Unless you are designing a site for the Smithsonian Institution or the National Gallery of Art, surfers are not visiting your agency site to admire your artistic skills. They are there to get information.

The Smithsonian's home page, at www.si.edu, has only a single image, which loads after all the important text and links.

The National Gallery home page, at http://www.nga.gov, loads quickly with only one picture and'although the background contrasts poorly with most of the text'is an attractive site.

Considering that two institutions with ample artistic and visual resources take a simple approach to their home pages, managers at agencies with elaborate pages ought to ask themselves if they are designing with the end users'citizens'in mind.

Some questionable design is understandable, at least at first. In-house users and developers typically have fast connections to the Web, so they might not notice how slowly their pages load for the average user.

A special class of Web analysis software, the user emulation tool, can give you a user's-eye view of how your page loads. If the most important items load first and near the top of the page, visitors won't notice that it takes 30 seconds to completely load the items that are there to make an aesthetic impression.

There's absolutely nothing wrong with having an attractive Web page as long as the design doesn't get in the way of the information.

If you know how your pages work for average users, you can tweak them to improve loading speeds while leaving the underlying information untouched.

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