Although Internet connection speeds are not as much of a problem as they were in the 1990s, they still do present a problem for many users in rural areas who do not have access to high speed connections. Unfortunately, these Internet users who frequently buy products on the web, are largely ignored or not considered when web sites are designed.
The Web site testing problem
Proper web site testing procedures to accomodate users with slow Internet connections are simple to implement, but for some reason are rarely practiced by web designers and companies who develop their own web sites. Part of the problem lies with the widespread use of broadband Internet connections by most Internet professionals. The result is that designers and developers who perform the testing do not experience what many their site’s users experience when they visit a web site.
There are still a significant number of home users in the USA who do not have high speed Internet connections. These users are still stuck with 56k or slower dial-up connections. While most web users in large cities have easy access to relatively low-cost high speed Internet connections, people in rural areas have very limited options. Cable companies do not provide services to most rural areas. DSL lines are not available because the users are too far from the nearest switching station. Satellite is available, but installations can cost hundreds of dollars, and the level of service is generally poor, unreliable and much more expensive than cable would be–if it were available.
In practice, a standard dial-up connection via modem never exceeds 53k. Although it is called 56k, the FCC limits the transfer rate to 53k. In reality, it is rare to see a dial-up connection that exceeds 51k. Even worse, many users have inferior telephone connections that effectively limits the connection speed to 28.8k or sometimes 34.4k, even in large metropolitan areas. When reporting the problem to the local telephone company, the most common response heard is “We don’t guarantee Internet connection speeds.” This not a rare occurrence. We have personally experienced this problem.
The performance problems that broadband hides
The hidden problem with bloated page weight is that it creates loading and rendering problems that frustrate users and causes them to abandon a site. If the total page weight exceeds 60k, you may have a minor performance problem. If the total page weight exceeds 100k, you do have a moderate performance problem and may be losing some dial-up users through abandonment. If the total page weight exceeds 150K, your performance problems are getting pretty severe and you most definitely are losing dial-up users due to abandonment. Anything beyond a 200k page weight is a performance disaster for users on dial-up connections. Although a page weight performance problem can be extremely frustrating for dial-up users, the problems are rarely apparent to broadband users, and thus rarely apparent to someone who has not set up a proper testing environment.
You will find more information about page weight and performance issues in our article entitled: Fast Web Pages.
The Web Site testing environment
The proper Web site testing solution is a complete simulation of the typical home user environment. All you need is an old and probably obsolete personal computer with a 56k dial-up modem. Any old Pentium or Pentium II PC with Windows 98 installed will work just fine. A newer PC with a more modern operating system and an installed modem will also work just as well. Even a laptop with a modem can be used, but laptops are sometimes inherently slow and may exaggerate any performance issues. Most ISPs offer dial-up connections, so obtaining a connection should not be a problem.
If you have several people on your testing team you do not necessarily have to equip each with an old PC. One or two testers simulating the user environment will work. If there are performance problems related to excessive page weight or poorly written code, they will be much more apparent on an old, slower PC on a dial-up connection. It might be a good idea to have your design and development team gather around the PC so that everyone involved can mutually experience any problem areas.
In the late 1990s, I once demonstrated a serious performance problem I identified to a rather skeptical design team by asking them to each test their site from home using a dial-up connection. They were previously testing their new web site only at their company location, which had a high-speed Internet connection. The turnaround in attitude the next day was astounding and clearly showed them why customers didn’t like their site. The most amazing part was that their customers had repeatedly complained about performance issues, but the team did not believe the customers because they never experienced the problem"until they tested the site from the customers’ perspective.