Speaker Spotlight: Ryan Townsend

By Oliver Lindberg28 May 2024Interviews

For Ryan Townsend web performance is not just about scoring better metrics, it’s about the broader user experience. Here he explains why Google's latest metric is a big deal, how he came up with the idea for his Pixel Pioneers talk, and a good starting point to find out how well your website really performs

Why’s 2024 the year that front-end devs and UX/UI designers should pay special attention to web performance?

Performance has always been an important concern for the web. The industry has been iterating on the metrics used to analyse it since the 2000s, but in 2024 – with the introduction of Interaction to Next Paint (INP) as an official Core Web Vital – we finally have a collection of widely-applicable metrics which do a dependable job of exposing what our users are experiencing.

We can no longer hide behind vanity metrics and what we think is best for our users, we now have data to prove what’s working and what’s problematic.

As ever, it’s important for developers and designers to work together to deliver experiences which don’t cause frustration, but this is now doubly important given INP factors in visual feedback.

How did you come up with the idea for your talk?

Aside from wanting to shoehorn a meme in (you might recognise the title from the film ‘The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent’), the talk has been inspired by the frustration I’ve witnessed businesses and developers experience over the past decade.

We’ve seen continual hype of technology that’s failed to deliver on its promises of high productivity, fast performance and developer experience, leading teams to get bogged down in trying to patch over these problems rather than being able to ship and move their business forward.

As a CTO who’s had to balance varying and often conflicting priorities, and as someone who’s spent 20 years working with the web, I feel we all deserve better.

What can we expect to take away from it?

I love the web – it’s completely unrivalled as a global platform and it’s incredible what we can achieve with it, so I hope that while I reflect a little on the grey skies of the past decade, I’m confident we’ll all leave with a sense of revived vigour and excitement for working with it in a way that benefits both ourselves and our users.

No spoilers but can you give us a sneak peek, one little performance tip?

You can’t optimise what you’re not measuring – utilising Google’s CrUX data or gathering your own via real-user monitoring (RUM) is the only way to get a true picture of where you stand and your trajectory over time.

Google’s CrUX dashboard

Synthetic tests are at best a rough guestimate of reality – I even experienced this myself recently, a new client website launched and it turned out a third-party newsletter sign-up modal added shortly after launch caused INP problems, thankfully I had RUM in-place to identify this.

What kind of performance pitfalls should developers currently look out for?

In both my own analysis and from others, I’ve found Lighthouse scores do not correlate to real world performance – the audits are fantastic signposts to help you optimise, but do not place any value in the score.

Focus on what Google Search Console and the CrUX dashboard are telling you. For a quick check of your status and trajectory, check out RUMvision’s Web Vital History Checker.

RUMvision’s free Web Vital History Checker

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

I can certainly tell you the worst advice: “Don’t get into tech, it’s all being outsourced to India” – great work by the careers advice service during secondary school there!

In terms of best advice, I didn’t really receive this as advice as such, but it’s a mantra that’s stuck with me throughout my career – one that I’m sure many have heard: “strong opinions, loosely-held”.

Having worked with senior engineers, executives and business owners, you can identify when they’ve peaked and believe they’re the smartest person in any room and stop valuing the feedback of others.

I get it, it’s hard to be humble when you’ve worked your way up for years and you don’t want to appear weak to people you might need to have awkward, conflicting conversations with in future, but the most successful people I’ve met have been the ones who accept input, genuinely welcome being corrected and identify their weaknesses so they can find the right people to support them.

At Pixel Pioneers Bristol, Ryan Townsend will explain how we can build fast, maintainable, and user-friendly front-ends. The conference will also cover modern CSS layouts, AI and practical prompt engineering tips, approaching a technical migration safely and sensibly, avoiding common accessibility mistakes, and more. Get your ticket today!