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Fast, Fun & Touch-Friendly

A Conversation with Mobile Performance Evangelist Herman Ng

In the post-PC era, tablets are taking on a central role in connecting consumer and business users with their online worlds. But touch-based tablets present an entirely different interface from the point-and-click paradigm of the desk- or laptop-bound Web. And tablet users on the go are frequently stymied by the inherent sluggishness of cellular network connections. It’s not an impossible task, though, to create tablet website experiences that satisfy user expectations and, with a little effort, leverage the tablet interface. Benchmark recently sat down with Keynote Mobile Performance Evangelist Herman Ng to get his insight into the tablet website experience, and get a few pointers on how to make it better.

Benchmark: What is your assessment of the current state of website performance on tablets?

Herman Ng: There’s no one score to give across the board. Everybody’s at a different level, because everybody is doing different things. Some people are doing their regular sites, some are doing a tablet site. Some are just serving the mobile website, and there are some companies redirecting the user to use the mobile app. Overall, performance is just all over the place. There are so many tablets coming out — the iPad and some of the Androids are, of course, the mainstream, but there are so many different versions. And then you have 3G and Wi-Fi, and now the iPad’s LTE. So even the same site is going to be performing differently across different connections and devices.

Benchmark: Is it safe to assume that, if you’re on a Wi-Fi network, it’s going to perform pretty much as any other device on that Wi-Fi network is going to perform? But 3G would be a different story?

Herman Ng: Yes, if you’re on Wi-Fi, you’re going to get much faster performance, unless you are at a hotspot and there’s a lot of people accessing it. I think mobile users understand that when they’re on 3G, they’re going to get slower performance. I think the end user gets it. They’re not going to blame it all on the site. They anticipate, hey, there’s lots of content, but it loads — as long as it loads. They realize that and expect that.

Benchmark: You feel users have a pretty forgiving attitude.

Herman Ng: In their home, it’s a different story. If they have a good connection, they prefer to use the tablet. But they expect it to load quickly. If in that scenario, something doesn’t load quickly, if the site takes longer than usual, then they will move on — to another site or to their computer.

Benchmark: Have you noticed any corollary between this phase of tablet adoption and a similar phase a few years ago with smartphone adoption, where users are more patient because it’s new and they understand it’s over the air? But the more that they use it, the higher their expectations become?

Herman Ng: Yes, I think it is true to some degree that the wave of the tablet is in some ways very similar to the smartphone. But in general, when we are using our smartphones, we are literally ‘mobile,’ and most of the time on a 3G network versus Wi-Fi. I believe for a tablet user, just because of the nature of the tablet— you have a larger screen, you are getting more content, you can do more on the tablet — I think users will try to avoid a 3G network and find a better connection if they can. But if they are on a 3G network, then yes, things will be very similar to the smartphone experience.

Benchmark: The research out there says that anywhere from 10 to 30 percent of tablet users are using their tablets on 3G.That’s a fairly significant number. So it seems like it’s imperative on website owners to make sure that the 10 or 20 or 30 percent on 3G have a decent experience.

Herman Ng: True. The other point I want to bring up is one difference between the tablet and the smartphone is, for a smartphone, 3G is mandatory. You cannot get an iPhone without a data plan. Right?

Benchmark: Right.

Herman Ng: But with a tablet, it’s the opposite. You can get a tablet without the data plan, without 3G. It’s an option. So there are tablet users who choose to get 3G, but many also who don’t.

Benchmark: What are the biggest challenges that website owners have in creating a decent experience over 3G?

Herman Ng: The tablet has a relatively larger screen size compared to any of the smartphones. So naturally the page you want to serve will have more content, and that will slow things down.

And now, to complicate things further, you have the new iPad with the high-resolution Retina display. It makes sense to provide a higher resolution image, but how does that affect the performance? When the user is on 3G, that all comes into question. On the one hand, it’s good to design for a tablet, but you have to keep the 3G connection, the slower connection, the higher latency in mind. It can end up being a trade-off between performance and the richness of the site, unless you choose to ignore the 3G aspect. If someone already has a very well-designed site on the desktop, they may or may not want to spend the extra effort to adapt it to the tablet.

I feel that it’s on a case-by-case basis. Some companies may have a site that works just fine on a tablet in terms of performance. Others may have so much content on their desktop site that they have to make quite a bit of adjustment to provide good performance.

<>Benchmark: What kind of mistakes do you see people making when it comes to tablets? Obviously trying to push too much content across a 3G connection is a big mistake.

<>Herman Ng: Too much content is definitely the first thing. But the other thing is not doing anything, simply saying, ‘Oh, yeah, a tablet — nowadays a tablet is very powerful, it can render pretty much anything, except Flash on the iPad.’ The biggest mistake is to ignore it completely — simply assuming everything that works on the desktop is the same on a tablet.

Two other mistakes, for companies that do decide to design something for the tablet: One is excluding certain functions, features, or content, on purpose. Users are complaining about that. Users who are used to the desktop site, even though they are on a tablet, want the exact same functions, the exact same content. Their response is, ‘why are you not letting me do this?’

<>Benchmark: As opposed to a smartphone, where they’d be more forgiving? It makes sense to deliver a special experience for the smartphone that would be more limited.

<>Herman Ng: Yes, on the smartphone, you have a completely different view — a scaled down version of a large site. That’s expected, and users will accept that. That brings me to the second big mistake I wanted to point out — providing the smartphone site on the tablet. That’s a big no-no. The tablet user has made the investment to buy a tablet. They don’t want to see a smartphone site on the tablet at all. They would rather see the desktop site, even though the smartphone site would load faster.

So it’s important to come from the user experience point of view. On the tablet, they expect to swipe, to touch. All those can be done on the smartphone too, but the smartphone interface is limited. The experience is not as rich as a site that is designed specifically for tablets.

<>Benchmark: Even within Apple’s closed ecosystem, you now have multiple iPads to deal with — the original iPad, the iPad 2, and now you’ve got the new iPad with a Retina display. And obviously, it’s not always going to be an iPad-only world. Are we looking at smartphones all over again, where you’re dealing with different screen sizes, different OSs, different resolutions? What’s a site owner to do at that point? Do we fall back on HTML5 and hope that it all works?

<>Herman Ng: I think that’s completely true. It is like the smartphone world all over again, with so many devices, so many variations. HTML5 provides lots of good features that can be leveraged for both the smartphone and the tablet. But in terms of performance, HTML5 isn’t the solution. I think actually, in terms of performance, the way to address this issue would be to consider using a CDN, a content delivery network.

Nowadays, there are mobile-specific CDNs out there. And the traditional Web CDNs are also doing mobile-specific strategies or methodologies for how to accelerate over a mobile network. For example, coming back to high-resolution images — they work fine on Wi-Fi, but not on 3G. So how do you know if the user is on a Wi-Fi network or on the 3G network? In most cases, you can’t know. But the CDN has a way to figure that out. So that’s why tapping into the CDN’s expertise would be one good route to go.

<>Benchmark: Everyone is anticipating Windows 8 coming out this year. Like the Mac OS at this point, Windows 8 is going to be desktop, phone, tablet. And Apple keeps pushing its desktop OS more to iOS, to create a unified experience. It begs the question of how far these things are going to come together. What do you see happening there?

<>Herman Ng: I think from the OS interface point of view, for example, your dashboard, the launch menu, the start menu — if all those functions look and feel the same on the desktop and the tablet, I think that’s a good thing, and users want that because it’s consistent. I think, though, from the Web page point of view, that may not be as big a factor, because on the desktop, we are using the mouse to interact with the page. On the tablet and the smartphone we are using our finger. You have all these extra features or functions like the touch interface, gestures, multi-touch capability. Once users start to view the page and interact with it, the difference will always be there. Maybe they look and feel similar, but within the browser there will be differences.

<>Benchmark: We know that on the desktop, the threshold now is about two seconds before you start losing people if your site hasn’t responded. Based on your experience, what do you think the acceptable duration is for a tablet site to load? How long are people willing to wait?

<>Herman Ng: I believe on the smartphone side, some of our consultants say the minimum performance is a speed of eight seconds. I think on the tablet, on one hand, we can allow more time because we expect there will be more content coming through. But at the same time, one of the things I always tell people is that all of these are mobile devices. With mobile users, attention is very short. When things don’t show up, you’re going to get distracted and do something else. If a site doesn’t load, I can often get the same content from another site. I can go to a competitor.

So, I think eight seconds for a smartphone. Maybe you can add a few more seconds on the tablet for extra content popping up. I don’t think a user would want to see anything longer than that.

<>Benchmark: It seems like a lot of users might say, ‘I paid $500 for this thing and it should work as well as my phone.’

<>Herman Ng: True. One more point on the performance topic is, we say performance is the time for a page to load. Sometimes there are things an enterprise can do to make the site appear to load faster, while it might still actually be loading — allowing the user to see the top of the page first, allowing them to interact with a portion of the page before it loads completely. With news, for example, maybe I want to check out the entertainment news. Entertainment is never on the front page on CNN or USA TODAY. But if you can see the menu and touch on the menu before all the featured news loads, that’s a good thing. You speed up the performance. From the user point of view, they got good performance because they’re able to see the menu bar in less than three seconds and click on ‘entertainment.’ Then they’re willing to wait for the specific content they want to see.

<>Benchmark: That’s a really good point. The user wants to know that something’s happening and not be staring at a blank screen or a screen that’s barely loading that they can’t do anything with.

<>Herman Ng: Yes. If you’re showing them some progress they will be willing to wait a little bit longer. If you have nothing coming through, you risk losing them.

<>Benchmark: So how would you sum up to the business owner who says to you, ‘What do I do about the tablet? How do I go about creating a site for my tablet users? What are the things you’d want me to think about?’

<>Herman Ng: This one is more related to user experience or user interface than performance. I think the first thing is, like you said, if I spent $500 on a tablet I want to take advantage of it. I want to use the touch interface, the gestures, the swipe. If I can swipe on the site that’s great — swiping to different images, for example. As a user I feel good because I’m using the features that come with my tablet. A traditional site will not provide any of that because you will just be navigating up and down, scrolling up and down — that’s boring. If the site can take advantage of the swipe, if they have a reason to use the camera, to interact with video, or link to an app. All of those come together to take advantage of what the tablet provides.

<>Benchmark: Right. Geolocation must be on your list, too?

Herman Ng: Yes, geolocation, too. Absolutely. I think in the end, personally, if I’m on a tablet, I go to a site, I see a site, I know just by the look and feel if it’s the same thing as the desktop site. I don’t really get too excited about it. If I go to a site and I see that the layout is slightly different and they put some thought into it specifically for the tablet, that’s interesting. So capture user interest. The tablet is a fun tool, a fun device. Make it interesting and fun for the user.

About Herman Ng

Herman Ng is the mobile performance evangelist at Keynote Systems, where he helps enterprises daily to understand and improve performance for the mobile Web, apps and SMS. He manages Keynote’s mobile performance benchmarking indices and contributes frequently to mobile performance publications. Prior to joining Keynote, Herman worked with several wireless carriers and telecom network providers, where he helped build mobile networks from the ground up, giving him a unique perspective on the challenge of achieving a great mobile user experience.

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