Sustainable Web Design, An Excerpt
But on May 6, 1956, Roger Bannister took everyone by surprise. It was a cold, wet day in Oxford, England—conditions no one expected to lend themselves to record-setting—and yet Bannister did just that, running a mile in 3:59.4 and becoming the first person in the record books to run a mile in under four minutes.
This shift in the benchmark had profound effects; the world now knew that the four-minute mile was possible. Bannister’s record lasted only forty-six days, when it was snatched away by Australian runner John Landy. Then a year later, three runners all beat the four-minute barrier together in the same race. Since then, over 1,400 runners have officially run a mile in under four minutes; the current record is 3:43.13, held by Moroccan athlete Hicham El Guerrouj.
We achieve far more when we believe that something is possible, and we will believe it’s possible only when we see someone else has already done it—and as with human running speed, so it is with what we believe are the hard limits for how a website needs to perform.
Establishing standards for a sustainable web
In most major industries, the key metrics of environmental performance are fairly well established, such as miles per gallon for cars or energy per square meter for homes. The tools and methods for calculating those metrics are standardized as well, which keeps everyone on the same page when doing environmental assessments. In the world of websites and apps, however, we aren’t held to any particular environmental standards, and only recently have gained the tools and methods we need to even make an environmental assessment.
The primary goal in sustainable web design is to reduce carbon emissions. However, it’s almost impossible to actually measure the amount of CO2 produced by a web product. We can’t measure the fumes coming out of the exhaust pipes on our laptops. The emissions of our websites are far away, out of sight and out of mind, coming out of power stations burning coal and gas. We have no way to trace the electrons from a website or app back to the power station where the electricity is being generated and actually know the exact amount of greenhouse gas produced. So what do we do?
If we can’t measure the actual carbon emissions, then we need to find what we can measure. The primary factors that could be used as indicators of carbon emissions are:
- Data transfer
- Carbon intensity of electricity
Let’s take a look at how we can use these metrics to quantify the energy consumption, and in turn the carbon footprint, of the websites and web apps we create.
Most researchers use kilowatt-hours per gigabyte (kWh/GB) as a metric of energy efficiency when measuring the amount of data transferred over the internet when a website or application is used. This provides a great reference point for energy consumption and carbon emissions. As a rule of thumb, the more data transferred, the more energy used in the data center, telecoms networks, and end user devices.
For web pages, data transfer for a single visit can be most easily estimated by measuring the page weight, meaning the transfer size of the page in kilobytes the first time someone visits the page. It’s fairly easy to measure using the developer tools in any modern web browser. Often your web hosting account will include statistics for the total data transfer of any web application
The nice thing about page weight as a metric is that it allows us to compare the efficiency of web pages on a level playing field without confusing the issue with constantly changing traffic volumes.
Reducing page weight requires a large scope. By early 2020, the median page weight was 1.97 MB for setups the HTTP Archive classifies as “desktop” and 1.77 MB for “mobile,” with desktop increasing 36 percent since January 2016 and mobile page weights nearly doubling in the same period Roughly half of this data transfer is image files, making images the single biggest source of carbon emissions on the average website.
History clearly shows us that our web pages can be smaller, if only we set our minds to it. While most technologies become ever more energy efficient, including the underlying technology of the web such as data centers and transmission networks, websites themselves are a technology that becomes less efficient as time goes on.
You might be familiar with the concept of performance budgeting as a way of focusing a project team on creating faster user experiences. For example, we might specify that the website must load in a maximum of one second on a broadband connection and three seconds on a 3G connection. Much like speed limits while driving, performance budgets are upper limits rather than vague suggestions, so the goal should always be to come in under budget.
Designing for fast performance does often lead to reduced data transfer and emissions, but it isn’t always the case. Web performance is often more about the subjective perception of load times than it is about the true efficiency of the underlying system, whereas page weight and transfer size are more objective measures and more reliable benchmarks for sustainable web design.
We can set a page weight budget in reference to a benchmark of industry averages, using data from sources like HTTP Archive. We can also benchmark page weight against competitors or the old version of the website we’re replacing. For example, we might set a maximum page weight budget as equal to our most efficient competitor, or we could set the benchmark lower to guarantee we are best in class.
If we want to take it to the next level, then we could also start looking at the transfer size of our web pages for repeat visitors. Although page weight for the first time someone visits is the easiest thing to measure, and easy to compare on a like-for-like basis, we can learn even more if we start looking at transfer size in other scenarios too. For example, visitors who load the same page multiple times will likely have a high percentage of the files cached in their browser, meaning they don’t need to transfer all of the files on subsequent visits. Likewise, a visitor who navigates to new pages on the same website will likely not need to load the full page each time, as some global assets from areas like the header and footer may already be cached in their browser. Measuring transfer size at this next level of detail can help us learn even more about how we can optimize efficiency for users who regularly visit our pages, and enable us to set page weight budgets for additional scenarios beyond the first visit.
Page weight budgets are easy to track throughout a design and development process. Although they don’t actually tell us carbon emission and energy consumption analytics directly, they give us a clear indication of efficiency relative to other websites. And as transfer size is an effective analog for energy consumption, we can actually use it to estimate energy consumption too.
In summary, reduced data transfer translates to energy efficiency, a key factor to reducing carbon emissions of web products. The more efficient our products, the less electricity they use, and the less fossil fuels need to be burned to produce the electricity to power them. But as we’ll see next, since all web products demand some power, it’s important to consider the source of that electricity, too.
Disadvantages of mobile-first
Setting style declarations and then overwriting them at higher breakpoints can lead to undesirable ramifications:
More complexity. The farther up the breakpoint hierarchy you go, the more unnecessary code you inherit from lower breakpoints.
Higher CSS specificity. Styles that have been reverted to their browser default value in a class name declaration now have a higher specificity. This can be a headache on large projects when you want to keep the CSS selectors as simple as possible.
Requires more regression testing. Changes to the CSS at a lower view (like adding a new style) requires all higher breakpoints to be regression tested.
The browser can’t prioritize CSS downloads. At wider breakpoints, classic mobile-first
min-width media queries don’t leverage the browser’s capability to download CSS files in priority order.
The problem of property value overrides
There is nothing inherently wrong with overwriting values; CSS was designed to do just that. Still, inheriting incorrect values is unhelpful and can be burdensome and inefficient. It can also lead to increased style specificity when you have to overwrite styles to reset them back to their defaults, something that may cause issues later on, especially if you are using a combination of bespoke CSS and utility classes. We won’t be able to use a utility class for a style that has been reset with a higher specificity.
With this in mind, I’m developing CSS with a focus on the default values much more these days. Since there’s no specific order, and no chains of specific values to keep track of, this frees me to develop breakpoints simultaneously. I concentrate on finding common styles and isolating the specific exceptions in closed media query ranges (that is, any range with a
This approach opens up some opportunities, as you can look at each breakpoint as a clean slate. If a component’s layout looks like it should be based on Flexbox at all breakpoints, it’s fine and can be coded in the default style sheet. But if it looks like Grid would be much better for large screens and Flexbox for mobile, these can both be done entirely independently when the CSS is put into closed media query ranges. Also, developing simultaneously requires you to have a good understanding of any given component in all breakpoints up front. This can help surface issues in the design earlier in the development process. We don’t want to get stuck down a rabbit hole building a complex component for mobile, and then get the designs for desktop and find they are equally complex and incompatible with the HTML we created for the mobile view!
Though this approach isn’t going to suit everyone, I encourage you to give it a try. There are plenty of tools out there to help with concurrent development, such as Responsively App, Blisk, and many others.
Having said that, I don’t feel the order itself is particularly relevant. If you are comfortable with focusing on the mobile view, have a good understanding of the requirements for other breakpoints, and prefer to work on one device at a time, then by all means stick with the classic development order. The important thing is to identify common styles and exceptions so you can put them in the relevant stylesheet—a sort of manual tree-shaking process! Personally, I find this a little easier when working on a component across breakpoints, but that’s by no means a requirement.
Closed media query ranges in practice
In classic mobile-first CSS we overwrite the styles, but we can avoid this by using media query ranges. To illustrate the difference (I’m using SCSS for brevity), let’s assume there are three visual designs:
- smaller than 768
- from 768 to below 1024
- 1024 and anything larger
Take a simple example where a block-level element has a default
padding of “20px,” which is overwritten at tablet to be “40px” and set back to “20px” on desktop.
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On the other hand, we denounce with righteous