Agencies: Speed up your Web sites

There is an important attribute of the Web that we tend to overlook: speed.

The public has been promised tremendous online functionality, only to find that "WWW" often means "World Wide Wait." But in effect, the Web has been oversold. It offers tremendous functionality, but functionality must come with "practicality."

The general principle that customers should be able to find what they want within three clicks is a speed issue. But if I wait for three pages to load at a Web site and still don't get the response I need, my patience wears thin — especially when using dial-up access.

There is a standard programming rule of thumb that functionality and speed must be balanced. It is certainly "sexier" to build in functionality. Building for speed is a bit more boring. It is a design issue and primarily involves buying new hardware components.

The culprit in the speed problem is software — from the growing complexity of database software to yet another application plug-in for your browser. As the speed of microprocessors increases, so does the size of software. As the size of software increases, so does the need for faster microprocessors.

The problem with this cycle is the lag in replacing key hardware components to improve speed.

Replacement times vary, of course. It's rare for homes, small businesses, agencies and other organizations to upgrade their PCs every three years or less. On the other hand, I have heard of some leading dot-com companies that buy new workstations for key programmers every four to six months. I also have heard that of one of the top 10 banks rotates PCs every two years or less. At GSA's Office of Governmentwide Policy, our rule of thumb is every three years for PC refreshment.

The functionality of Web sites has outrun the speed of most of the public's systems. Disappointment mounts as users spend a significant amount of time trying to get what they want over the Web.

Maybe developers and Web companies should be required to use the average public access equipment to get a better appreciation of the impact of speed.

It's difficult for a government agency to decide to simplify and downsize a Web site. Functionality is fun to work on and sells, but the reality is that we must focus on how the average user accesses Web sites.

Navigation schemes, searching algorithms and more come into play. But of primary importance is a "basic" infrastructure of speedy components that must be in place - including faster local-area networks, faster telecommunications links and more.

Before adding even more functionality, agencies must first invest in speed.

Kellett is founder of the federal Web Business Council, co-chairman of the federal WebMasters Forum and is director of GSA's Emerging IT Policies Division.

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