Over the last decade the number of people accessing the web globally has increased threefold, from 1 billion in 2005 to approximately 3 billion today. People from every walk of life in the first world use the web to share, shop and surf online daily.
The developing world is catching up fast. Projects like Google’s Loon internet-connectivity balloons, and Facebook’s Internet.org project to bring telcos together are driving access to the internet for the next 3 billion. Users in India, China, Brazil and other smaller nations where internet access is growing tend to use relatively low-powered smartphones with wireless 3G internet connectivity where data is expensive. These criteria should change the way we build internet sites, and in turn improve the experience for users everywhere.
Developing a website for everyone makes using current best practises absolutely essential. A mobile responsive website is a good way to deliver an enjoyable experience in the UK, but for variety of devices used in India and China it is absolutely critical. Websites for the developing world need to be internationalised for languages that display very differently to the common Latin characters we use.
They need to be optimised so they’re efficient both in what’s downloaded to the user’s smartphone and what’s cached so it doesn’t need to be downloaded again. Images need to be compressed intelligently using tools such as pngquant and jpegtran. Data should be bundled with the initial page load to reduce the number of round trips to the server.
These are all things that we would do in a typical website regardless, but considered less important so they can be the first things to go if budgets are stretched. On a western website the impact on the user experience is minimal; on a mobile site where people might access it from anywhere those optimisations will be essential.
There are other challenges too – users in developing countries frequently don’t have a bank account so payment systems need to include the option to pay by the more commonly used SMS payment or money transfer, and often users don’t have what we would consider a delivery address, so ecommerce applications need to include a way for users to receive parcels according to their local culture.
The ways we develop websites has progressed considerably over the past ten years, but we’re a long way from being done yet. There are exciting times ahead.