One of the hottest topics in today's tech news is the ceaseless debate over net neutrality.
If you need a refresher, net neutrality is the practice of keeping the web equally open to all individuals, regardless of their Internet service provider (ISP), data plan, or other incidentals.
Opponents of net neutrality (primarily ISPs) have proposed creating “fast lanes” for subscribers who are able and willing to pay for it, throttling or artificially slowing web speeds for people on lower plans.
Some net neutrality opponents have even proposed restricting web access to certain sites, depending on what your plan package would be. For example, “normal”, slow subscribers might not get access to Netflix or certain news sites.
At this point, you are probably very aware of the potential effects the net neutrality ruling may have on cable and internet providers, small businesses, and your own browsing habits.
But how could the loss of net neutrality affect your site’s usability?
One of the most immediate and obvious effects that tiered internet would have is slower internet for lower-paying customers.
As you probably know, slow upload and download speed is one of the top pet peeves for customers, and a site load time of even one second can decrease conversion by seven percent. If a significant proportion of your customers are on a lower-tiered plan, that could mean a HUGE bounce rate for your site. These users could even come to expect that certain websites will consistently load more slowly, and choose to forego photo-heavy sites like Tumblr, Dribbble, and Buzzfeed altogether.
While slow internet is annoying in and of itself, reducing the internet speed of wide swaths of your customer base may have a negative effect on web content and UX elements.
A significant portion of the population being subjected to internet throttling could also have strong and limiting implications for SEO.
There are two major ways that search results could be affected:
- Search results are limited to only the sites that certain subscriber levels are able to access
- Search results remain mostly the same, and users have to guess blindly to find a result that is covered by their subscription or one that won’t choke under narrow bandwidth
Speaking of Buzzfeed, who doesn't like a good gif now and then?
Loading a gif is essentially the equivalent of loading 10-50 images - which is why gifs often load more slowly than JPEGs and even YouTube videos.
Effect on entertainment & education sites
Slower web speeds means that rich content sites like Buzzfeed, Udacity, and other sites that rely on images and video may suffer from decreased performance, and may be forced to simplify if they wish to keep appealing to a wide audience.
Imagine sites like this without gifs, videos, or even images.
However, if (for example) Buzzfeed does away with gifs and Vine embedding, it may lose the audiences who enjoy the rich content on which these sites have branded themselves.
Effect on e-commerce sites
This may not only be restricted to entertainment sites - many e-commerce sites use rich content such as interactive visuals and product videos to explain their product details.
Watching product videos can be an essential part of the online shopping experience.
Our experience testing thousands of websites shows that rich content on ecommerce sites is highly valued by users, and is often requested if it is not already present.
Can you imagine shopping Apple without having all those demos and details? What about looking for recipes without having access to all those photos of successful dishes?
How will sites deal with inconsistent speeds?
Websites with bandwidth-heavy content may add a disclaimer, similar to the one that would appear if you were using Chrome to view a Firefox-optimized website, warning of potential lags and delays.
However, this might also deter users, as their problem cannot be solved as easily as switching browsers.
Dark UX is a scary-sounding term for UX and UI patterns that force users into behaviors that they may not have engaged in otherwise--essentially, tricking users. Hidden costs, secret ads, and unwilling friend-spamming are all examples of dark UX.
One of the concerns rising in response to the issue is that ISPs will charge a premium for access to certain sites.
Let’s say you want to watch your favorite TV show, but the only place to watch it (legally) is on the TV network’s website. An ISP could strike a deal with one of these network sites so that only higher-tier customers could access the shows.
Since internet/cable already exists in a state of geographic monopoly, it would be highly unlikely that customers would simply switch to a different ISP in order to access the videos.
So, since the TV network websites have a captive audience, what is their incentive to provide a good user experience?
Imagine this: the network knows that its audience can't switch--assuming they want to consume legal media, they have to keep returning to their website. This gives the TV network carte blanche to pepper their site with ads, impose more paid content, and create other dark UX patterns that benefit the site but frustrate the user.
Decreased competition = less emphasis on UX
Of course, this doesn’t mean that every website signed onto an ISP tier will suddenly turn to the dark side of UX! But a huge part of the investment in good UX is rooted in the desire to compete and to stand out.
Plus, many website owners learn valuable lessons from studying, imitating, and improving upon their competitors’ offerings. Without this motivation, UX best practices could begin to gather a little dust.
Competition isn’t the only motivator for innovation and boundary-pushing. Many great companies have started as small independent ventures, in a garage or back office without capital or funding.
Providing equal access to the internet allows people of all backgrounds to create and spread amazing new ideas and products, many of which have direct impact on design and usability. Imagine if Pinterest or Facebook (major design and experience influences) never took off!
And if we want to get really meta, stifling innovation could result in the loss of companies who help your site become better (like your favorite analytics tools, and, of course, UserTesting)!
Will it affect me?
We don’t know yet if or when internet slow lanes and tiered access will occur. If they do, it's possible that your audience may shift dramatically depending on where your site's demographics fall within the new tiers.
It's important to realize that your UX practices may have to change if you plan on maintaining audience engagement on your website.
Providing audiences with a good experience now will encourage them to stick around in a post-net neutrality world. Plus, making sure your content is clean, simple, and compelling will have great results for your current conversion.
To take action, you can submit a comment to the Federal Communications Commission through September 10, 2014.
What are your thoughts on the net neutrality issue? How will your site change if net neutrality disappears?
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