Perfecting your websites through marginal gains
Just over ten years ago, the world of British competitive cycling was going absolutely nowhere fast. There was the odd exception of Tom Simpson in the 60’s and Chris Boardman in the 90’s but other than this not one British cyclist had made any sort of impact on the sport. It had become dominated by France, Belgium, Spain and the guys from Down Under but then all that was about to change in 2003 when Dave Brailsford was appointed by British cycling as performance director. It was here that Dave introduced something called marginal gains. The idea of marginal gains at the time was a fairly new philosophy where one focused on a number of small improvements as opposed to sweeping changes. The theory behind it was based on the fact that when all small improvements were gathered together they would result in significant change. As a result of Dave’s new philosophy Britain bagged 25 gold medals in Beijing in 2008 and another 16 gold medals in London 2012. There were also subsequent victories in the 2012 and 2013 Tour de France races.
Since the British cycling team shocked the entire nation by managing to stay on their bikes, marginal gains has become hugely popular in business. Sadly for the general world of business, marginal gains can often mean complete restructuring, creating huge problems. When it comes to the world of web design however, the two match perfectly.
Through the use of certain design patterns it would seem that most websites will perform fairly similarly to competitors. Introduce a small improvement however and it’s enough to make a website instantly stand out from the crowd. The 1% we’ll be referring to shortly shouldn’t be taken literally because quite simply it’s sometimes impossible to measure a design improvement in terms of percentage and even when it is, it’s not always desirable. The point to remember is that marginal gains refer to small improvements.
By adopting the mindset that there’s a possible 1% improvement to be found in every element, you instantly make things easier on yourself as 1% is far more attainable a target. Naturally some elements may offer greater scope than others. Elements that tend to lend themselves to marginal gains would be areas often ignored such as error messages. These aren’t commonly copy written or designed and tend to result in unfriendly messages such as Error 427: Expected data. To find improvements it’s advised that teams adopt a multi-disciplinary approach whereby a collaborative effort is sought. We’re not suggesting every designer needs to understand OOP (object orientated programming) or every developer needs to know how to adjust tracking but a simple overlap in roles and/or knowledge can help prevents cracks.
The key to marginal gains is knowing that everything can be improved. When optimising an image for example we commonly save a JPG at 60% then try to drop it down to 40%. If the quality isn’t good enough we instantly put it back up to 60% but what if we tried saving it at 59%? Here at Wecan Media we’ve found a mere 1% drop can result in an average of 3% reduction in file size. Another great example of this would be a two minute video on your site that consists of 2900 frames. By cutting 29 of the frames, just over a second in time, you’ll save another 1%.
We all know that users don’t really read websites. We may well have spent hours crafting content but our users will simply extract the minimum they need. Whether they scan the screen in an “F” pattern or click around until they strike lucky, it’s safe to say they focus on extreme details. This is why micro copy is a big deal whether it’s just a hint, an error message or even a snippet on twitter because users spend more time with micro copy than anything else. Micro copy is however the least likely to be designed and very much an afterthought. Password creation is a great example as we create them daily. We try once and get told not enough characters, we try again and are told we need a number, again and it’s upper and lower case. We have to write an error message so why not put micro copy alongside the form clearly stating what’s required so users get it right first time?
Typography is one area that fully embraces marginal gains simply because the slightest change, whether it’s ligatures and small caps, can provide massive improvement in readability. Typography is as much a science as it is an art with leads created by the way the eye and brain processes the written language and as a result there are certain rules. Typography is just about finding a number of 1%’s to improve everything as a whole so if you’re looking for 1% within your design work then focus on typography. It makes up around 95% of your web design and is perfectly aligned with marginal gains.
As we said before 1% is an easy figure to remember but is simply plucked from the air. What we’re trying to communicate is that small improvements are the way forward. Finding a 10% performance boost could introduce undesirable side effects such as quality loss whereas 1% improvements in 10 different areas would create the same 10% performance boost without the side effects. 1% improvements carry little weight on their own, pull them together however and huge improvements will be seen.
If you’d like more information on how marginal gains could help your website then simply contact us today.