This guide was created by David Fern, Social Security Administration.
For six months, from September 22, 2017 to March 22, 2018, the Federal Crowdsource Mobile Testing Program tested the 26 U.S. federal government websites that are most visited on mobile devices (smartphones and tablets) using seven mobile-friendly automated test tools. The results indicated that these were the common practices that make these sites not as mobile-friendly as a user might expect or want in a mobile experience. Most of these areas do not directly relate to usability issues, but instead, concern how the site is built (which can lead to poor performance). For more information on how we conducted the tests, see the Methodology section at the end.
The information here outlines the top five practices we found across these sites:
- Optimize CSS
- Avoid Absolute Dimensions and Positions in CSS Directives
- Use External Stylesheets to Separate Caching of CSS from the Content
- Combine CSS Image Assets into Sprite Files
- Optimize Images
- Limit Page Size and Weight
- Enable Resource Compression
- Optimize Images
- Specify Image Dimensions
- Utilize Caching
- Leverage Browser Caching
- Combine Multiple Files For Improved Performance
- Avoid Pop-ups
Keep in mind, if a website is developed using a content management system (CMS) or development framework, not all of these settings may be configurable. However, we suggest that developers research the capabilities of the system to determine if they can be. Some of these recommendations may occur in the web server layer, which may be separate from the program code.
Solution - Put scripts in the
<head> tag and use the
defer attributes, which allows the scripts to be downloaded ASAP without blocking your browser.
Scripts with the
async attribute are executed asynchronously. This means the script is executed as soon as it is downloaded—without blocking the browser in the meantime—and that the second script can be downloaded and executed before the first script.
Scripts with the
defer attribute are executed in order (i.e., first script one, then script two). This also does not block the browser. Unlike
defer scripts are only executed after the entire document has been loaded.
- Reduce the size of the above the fold content | https://developers.google.com/speed/docs/insights/PrioritizeVisibleContent
- Where should I put
<script>tags in HTML markup? | http://stackoverflow.com/questions/436411/where-should-i-put-script-tags-in-html-markup
Tactic 2: Optimize CSS
Cascading Style Sheets (CSS) describe how HTML elements are to be displayed on screen, can save a lot of work, and can control the layout of multiple web pages simultaneously.
However, CSS can increase application load time if absolute dimensions and positions in CSS directives are specified, external stylesheets are not used to separate caching of the CSS from the content, CSS image assets are not combined into Sprite files, and/or there is more than one
H1 tag per page.
Avoid Absolute Dimensions and Positions in CSS directives
Issue - Pixel and absolute dimensions and positions in CSS directives should be avoided, as they may not allow the browser to adapt content to fit the display or render correctly on all device types. However, there are exceptions to this rule. For example, if you want images to be tailored to fit a particular display it makes more sense to specify the dimension in pixels. In addition, pixel measures may be appropriate for margins, borders, and padding.
Solution – Use relative measures such as
thick where possible. For example, when specifying font, use
font-size: 1.5em instead of
- Fixit - Measures | https://mobiforge.com/design-development/fixit-measures
Use External Stylesheets to Separate Caching of CSS from the Content
Issue – External stylesheets should be used to separate the CSS instructions from the HTML. This CSS caching by a web browser avoids another trip to the server and speeds up page loading.
Solution – In the
<head> section of the HTML, use language to call the CSS file externally, keeping the CSS instructions in a separate file from the HTML (see below).
<link rel="stylesheet" type="text/css" href="https://mysite.com/main.css" media="screen" title="style (screen)" />
Caveat: Using many external CSS stylesheets can adversely affect performance, so they should be combined into a single external CSS.
- Internal vs External CSS | http://infoheap.com/internal-vs-external-css/
- Optimize CSS Delivery | https://varvy.com/pagespeed/optimize-css-delivery.html
Combine CSS Image Assets into Sprite Files
Issue - When many images are used independently, it requires several network requests to download each one. CSS Sprites combine multiple images into a single image file for use on a website to speed up delivery and load time. The file can then be cut up using CSS.
Solution - You can find many tools to create sprite sheets, including Compass, Lemonade, SpriteMe, Fireworks CS6, and TexturePacker.
- Fixit – Image Sprints | https://mobiforge.com/design-development/fixit-image-sprites
- CSS Sprites: What They are, Why They’re Cool, and How to Use Them | https://css-tricks.com/css-sprites/
- CSS Sprite Sheets: Best Practices, Tools and Helpful Applications | https://webdesign.tutsplus.com/articles/css-sprite-sheets-best-practices-tools-and-helpful-applications–webdesign-8340
- What is CSS? | https://www.w3schools.com/css/css_intro.asp
Tactic 3: Optimize Images
Page weight, also known as “the gravity of the web,” decreases your application performance by increasing load time and reducing network data usage. Understanding page weight, resource compression, optimization of images, and image dimensions is critical to a successful web strategy.
Limit Page Size and Weight
Issue - The total file size of the page including dependent files will affect the load time and the amount of time it takes a mobile crawler to evaluate. Clean and light pages are best for mobile SEO; mobile search engines will prefer to rank these pages. Strive to keep the file size of all mobile pages below 25 kilobytes. This is the maximum file size that the iPhone will cache for any element that is downloaded.
- Fixit – Page Size Limit | https://mobiforge.com/design-development/fixit-page-size-limit
- Understanding Page Weight | https://mobiforge.com/research-analysis/understanding-web-page-weight
- Reducing Page Weight | https://mobiforge.com/design-development/reducing-page-weight
Enable Resource Compression
Issue - Compressing resources with gzip or Deflate can reduce the number of bytes sent over the network.
Solution - Most servers can be configured to use gzip compression. For example, you can enable gzip compression on an Apache server using the
.htaccess configuration file. You can also use mod_gzip to enable gzip compression, and mod_deflate to compress the output from your server before sending it to your visitor. If your site is hosted on a Windows server, you can enable compression for both static and dynamic files by selecting “enable static compression” in the IIS (Internet Information Services) manager.
- Enable Compression | https://developers.google.com/speed/docs/insights/EnableCompression
- Enable gzip Compression | https://varvy.com/pagespeed/enable-compression.html
- How to Enable gzip Compression | https://www.giftofspeed.com/enable-gzip-compression/
Issue - Images on the page should be optimized to reduce their file size without significantly affecting their visual quality. Formatting and compressing images can save many bytes of data.
Solution - Use image compression apps to easily reduce the file size of images. These tools remove hidden data in the image file, like additional color profiles and metadata (e.g., geolocation of where the photograph was taken), that aren’t needed. They provide a quick and easy way to reduce files size without losing any image quality. Image compression tools include TinyJPG, Compressor.io, Kraken, ImageOptimizer, ImageOptim, Crush Pics, and Minifier (Shopify Apps).
- Optimize Images | https://developers.google.com/speed/docs/insights/OptimizeImages
- Fixit – Image Crunch | https://mobiforge.com/design-development/fixit-image-crunch
- Optimizing Images for Web: A practical Guide | https://www.abetterlemonadestand.com/optimizing-images-for-web/
- How to Optimize Images for Your WordPress Website | https://www.elegantthemes.com/blog/tips-tricks/optimize-images-for-your-wordpress-website
Specify Image Dimensions
Issue - Image dimensions should always be included and images should not be resampled at run-time, as this will slow the rendering of the page. When images are referenced from within your markup, you should list their display dimensions for the browser. Specifying a width and height for all images allows for faster rendering by eliminating the need for unnecessary reflows and repaints.
Solution - Specify image width and height by including the
height attributes when you use the
img element (see below).
<img src="images/clown.jpg" width="50" height="50" />
If no dimensions are specified in the containing document, or if the dimensions specified do not match those of the actual images, the browser will require a reflow and repaint once the images are downloaded. To prevent reflows, specify the width and height of all images either in the HTML
<img> tag or in CSS.
- Fixit – Specify Image Sizes | https://mobiforge.com/design-development/fixit-specify-image-sizes
- Specify Image Dimensions | https://gtmetrix.com/specify-image-dimensions.html
Tactic 4: Utilize Caching
Reducing the number of times your application requests and processes resources will improve your load time and reduce network data usage. You can do this in two ways: local caching or minimizing the use of external scripts and objects.
Leverage Browser Caching
Issue - Fetching resources over the network is both slow and expensive and the download may require multiple round-trips between the client and server, which delays processing and may block rendering of page content. This can also incur data costs for the visitor. All server responses should specify a caching policy to help the client determine if and when they can reuse a previously fetched response.
Solution - Leverage browser caching by changing the request headers of your resources to use caching. You can either add some code to the
.htaccess configuration file on the web host/server or use the basic
Cache-Control HTTP header (see below).
Cache-Control: max-age=2592000, public
- Leverage Browser Caching | https://developers.google.com/speed/docs/insights/LeverageBrowserCaching
- Fixit - Caching | https://mobiforge.com/design-development/fixit-caching
- Leverage Browser Caching | https://varvy.com/pagespeed/leverage-browser-caching.html
- What is .htaccess? | http://www.htaccess-guide.com/
- Cache-Control | https://varvy.com/pagespeed/cache-control.html
Combine Multiple Files For Improved Performance
Issue - Every external object downloaded on a page requires a separate domain name server (DNS) request. This is not a big problem on a traditional computer with a fast connection, but on slower mobile networks it can cause latency. This will hurt application performance and load time.
- Mobile Web Application Best Practices – Minimize External Resources | https://varvy.com/pagespeed/cache-control.html
- How to Reduce HTTP requests to Speed Up Your WordPress Site | https://yoast.com/reduce-http-requests-wordpress/
- Easy Steps to Improve Page Load Times | http://www.peachpit.com/articles/article.aspx?p=1431494&seqNum=5
Tactic 5: Avoid Pop-ups
The use of pop-ups is not necessarily bad on a desktop application. However, if the application uses responsive design or is used on a mobile application, pop-ups often obstruct and hurt the user experience. They draw the user’s attention away from the page to the pop-up, and the novice user quickly becomes confused and frustrated.
Issue - Pop-up windows are not supported on many mobile devices and using them can have unpredictable results
Solution - There are many alternatives to pop-ups that are visible without taking up the entire window, such as lightboxes, inline expansion, and stationary banner ads.
- Fixit – Pop-up Windows | https://mobiforge.com/design-development/fixit-pop-windows
- The Death of Mobile Pop-Ups and What You Can Do Instead | http://searchengineland.com/death-mobile-pop-ups-can-instead-263390
- Google is Cracking Down on Intrusive Mobile Pop-Ups: Here’s What Marketers Need to Know | https://blog.hubspot.com/marketing/google-pop-up-mobile-marketing#sm.0000u10cf1u3gcsdyzz2qa1xm5ugf
- Which is the Best Alternative to a Pop-up? | https://www.quora.com/Which-is-the-best-alternative-to-a-pop-up
- 5 Essential UX Rules for Dialog Design | https://uxplanet.org/5-essential-ux-rules-for-dialog-design-4de258c22116
- 9 Not So Intrusive Alternatives to Hover Pop-up Ads | https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/9-not-so-intrusive-alternatives-hover-pop-up-ads-paula-agius
Our Methodology for This Study
We used the following steps to conduct this study:
- Using Digital Analytics Program (DAP) statistics, we pulled the names of the top 26 U.S. federal government websites accessed by mobile devices.
- We tested each site using seven mobile-friendly automated test tools:
- Google Mobile-Friendly Test | https://www.google.com/webmasters/tools/mobile-friendly/
- Mobile Moxie | https://www.mobilemoxie.com/tools/site_analysis/
- Mobi Ready | http://ready.mobi/
- Page Insights | https://developers.google.com/speed/pagespeed/insights/
- W3C MobileOK Checker | https://validator.w3.org/mobile/
- Varvy SEO tool | https://varvy.com/
- Gtmetrix - https://gtmetrix.com/
- After looking at the failed criteria reported by each tool, we compiled the results into a single Microsoft Excel spreadsheet.
Disclaimer: All references to specific brands and/or companies are used only for illustrative purposes and do not imply endorsement by the U.S. federal government or any federal government agency.