Gift Giving to the World (Wide Web)

Frances Berriman asks us to give the gift of consideration to those who are using the web on constricted devices such as low-end smart phones or feature phones. Christmas is a time of good will to all, and as Bugsy Malone reminds us, you give a little …

Frances Berriman asks us to give the gift of consideration to those who are using the web on constricted devices such as low-end smart phones or feature phones. Christmas is a time of good will to all, and as Bugsy Malone reminds us, you give a little love and it all comes back to you.


If I was given the job of Father Christmas with all my human limitations, apparently it would take me something like 6 months at non-stop full speed to deliver gifts to every kid on the planet. The real Father Christmas has the luxury of magic when it comes to delivering millions of gifts in just one night, but the only magical platform at my disposal is the world wide web, so I propose switching to digital gift cards and saving the reindeer feed.

300 million people are set to come online for the very first time in 2020, and a majority of those will be doing so via mobile phones (smart- and feature-phones). If we want those new users to have a great time online, spending those gift cards, we need to start thinking about their needs and limitations.

Suit up

We might not be hopping on the sleigh for these deliveries, but let’s suit up for the journey and get the tools we need to start testing and checking how our online gift-receivers will be enjoying their online shopping experience.

Of course, the variety of phones and OSs out there is huge and varied, but we have a few options out there to get a sense for the median. Here’s a few suggestions on where to start:

  • Never has there been a better time to advocate at your workplace for a device testing suite or lab.
  • You can also just pick up a low-end phone for a few bucks and spend some real time using it and getting a sense for how it feels to live with it every day. May I suggest the Nokia 2 or the Moto E6 - both very representative devices of the sort our new visitors will be on.
  • You’ve also got WebPageTest.org at your disposal, where you can emulate various phones and see your sites rendered in real-time to get a sense of what an experience may look like for your users.
  • You’ll also want to set yourself some goals. A performance budget, for example, is a good way to know if the code you’re shipping hits the mark in a more programmatic way.

Gift wrap

Many of us began our internet lives on desktop machines, and thanks to Moore’s law, these machines have been getting ever more powerful every year with more CPUs and memory at our disposal. The mobile phone landscape somewhat resets us on what hardware capacity is available on the client-side of our code, so it’s time to lighten the load.

What we see in the landscape of phones today is a huge spread of capabilities and CPU speeds, storage capacity and memory. And the gap between the haves and the have-nots is widening, so we have a huge task to deal with in meeting the needs of such a varied audience.

As far as possible, we should try to:

  • Keep processing off the client - do anything you can server-side. Consider a server-side render (hold the <script>, thanks) for anything relatively static (including cached frequent queries and results) to keep client-side JavaScript to the minimum. This way you’re spending your CPU, not the user’s.
  • Avoid sending everything you have to to the end user. Mobile-first access also means data-plan-first access for many, which means they may be literally paying in cold-hard cash for everything you send over the wire – or may be experiencing your site over a degraded “4G” connection towards the end of the month.
  • Aggressively cache assets to prevent re-downloading anything you’ve sent before. Don’t make the user pay twice if they don’t have to.
  • Progressively load additional assets and information as the user requests them, rather than a big upfront payload, that way you’re giving the end user a little more choice about whether they want or need that extra data set.

This is all to say that as web developers, we have a lot more control over how and when we deliver the meat of our products - unlike native apps that generally send the whole experience down as one multi-megabyte download that our 4G and data-strapped users can’t afford.

Make a wish

Finally, it’s time for your gift recipients to go out onto the web and find whatever their greatest wish is. For many, that’s going to begin when they first turn on their phone and see all those enticing icons on their home screen. Opening a browser may not be their first port of call.

They’ll be primed to look for sites and information through the icon-heavy menu that most mobile OSs use today, and they will be encouraged to find new experiences through the provided app store interface.

The good news is that web experience can be found in many modern app-stores today.

For example, if you build an app using Trusted Web Activities, the Google Play Store will list your web site right alongside native apps and allow users to install them on their phones. Samsung and Microsoft have similar options without the extra step of creating a TWA - they’ll list any Progressive Web App in their stores. Tools like Microsoft’s PWA Builder and Llama Pack are making this easier than ever.

If your users are primed to search for new experiences via a search engine instead, then they’ll benefit from the work you’ve put in to list them in app stores regardless, as PWAs are first and foremost about making websites mobile-friendly, regardless of point of sale. A PWA will provide them with offline support, service works, notifications and much more.

We do have a grinch in this story, however.

Apple’s iOS explicitly does not allow your website to be listed in their app store, so sadly you’ll have a harder time reaching those users. But it is possible! Fortunately, iOS isn’t as all-dominating world wide as it is in the tech community, selling only around 10-15% of smartphones out in the world.

The best present

The WWW is a wonderful gift that we received over 30 years ago and, as web developers, we get to steward and share this truly global, open, platform with millions of people every day. Let’s take care of it by building and sharing experiences that truly meet the needs of everyone.


About the author

Frances Berriman is a San Francisco-based British-born designer and web developer who blogs at fberriman.com. She’s done all sorts of things, but has a special soft spot for public sector projects, and has worked for the Government Digital Service, building GOV.UK, Code for America, Nature Publishing and the BBC and is currently Head of UX and Product Design at Netlify.

More articles by Frances


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