Front-End Developers Have to Manage the Loading Experience

Web performance is a huge complicated topic. There are metrics like total requests, page weight, time to glass, time to interactive, first input delay, etc. There are things to think about like asynchronous requests, render blocking, and priority downloading. We often talk about performance budgets and performance culture.

How that first document comes down from the server is a hot topic. That is where most back-end related performance talk enters the picture. It gives rise to architectures like the JAMstack, where gosh, at least we don’t have to worry about index.html being slow.

Images have a performance story all to themselves (formats! responsive images!). Fonts also (FOUT’n’friends!). CSS also (talk about render blocking!). Service workers can be involved at every level. And, of course, JavaScript is perhaps the most talked about villain of performance. All of this is balanced with perhaps the most important general performance concept: perceived performance. Front-end developers already have a ton of stuff we’re responsible for regarding performance. 80% is the generally quoted number and that sounds about right to me.

For a moment, let’s assume we’re going to build a site and we’re not going to server-side render it. Instead, we’re going to load an empty document and kick off data API calls as quickly as we can, then render the site with that data. Not a terribly rare scenario these days. As you might imagine, >we now have another major concern: handling the loading experience.

I mused about this the other day. Here’s an example:

I’d say that loading experience is pretty janky, and I’m on about the best hardware and internet connection money can buy. It’s not a disaster and surely many, many thousands of people use this particular site successfully every day. That said, it doesn’t feel fast, smooth, or particularly nice like you’d think a high-budget website would in these Future Times.

Part of the reason is probably because that page isn’t server-side rendered. For whatever reason (we can’t really know from the outside), that’s not the way they went. Could be developer efficiency, security, a temporary state during a re-write… who knows! (It probably isn’t ignorance.)

What are we to do? Well, I think this is a somewhat new problem in front-end development. We’ve told the browser: “Hey, we got this. We’re gonna load things all out of order depending on when our APIs cough stuff up to us and our front-end framework decides it’s time to do so.” I can see the perspective here where this isn’t ideal and we’ve given up something that browsers are incredibly good at only to do it less well ourselves. But hey, like I’ve laid out a bit here, the world is complicated.

What is actually happening is that these front-end frameworks are aware of this issue and are doing things to help manage it. Back in April of this year, Dan Abramov introduced React Suspense. It seems like a tool for helping front-end devs like us manage the idea that we now need to deal with more loading state stuff than we ever have before:

At about 14 minutes, he gets into fetching data with placeholder components, caching and such. This issue isn’t isolated to React, of course, but keeping in that theme, here’s a conference talk by Andrew Clark that hit home with me even more quickly (but ultimately uses the same demo and such):

Just the idea of waiting to show spinners for a little bit can go a long way in de-jankifying loading.

Mikael Ainalem puts a point on this in a recent article, A Brief History of Flickering Spinners. He explains more clearly what I was trying to say:

One reason behind this development is the change we’ve seen in asynchronous programming. Asynchronous programming is a lot easier than it used to be. Most modern languages have good support for loading data on the fly. Modern JavaScript has incorporated Promises and with ES7 comes the async and await keywords. With the async/await keywords one can easily fetch data and process it when needed. This means that we need to think a step further about how we show users that data is loading.

Plus, he offers some solutions!

See the Pen Flickering spinners by Mikael Ainalem (@ainalem) on CodePen.

We’ve got to get better at this.

The post Front-End Developers Have to Manage the Loading Experience appeared first on CSS-Tricks.

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