Web Performance: Your opinion is only somewhat relevant

Project 365 - Year 2 : Day 004 : 04/01/10 - Peter GerdesContext is everything. Where you stand when reading or watching something shapes the way you experience it. Just as Einstein explained to us in the Train/Platform Thought Experiment, the position of the observer dictates how the event is described and recorded.
There is no difference with web performance. When a company develops an online application and presents it to customers (it doesn’t matter if they are outside/retail or inside/partner/employee), the perspective of the team that approved, created, tested, and released the application becomes, as a VP at a previous company explained to me, “interesting, but irrelevant”.
Step away from the world of online application performance for a minute, and put yourself in the shoes of the customer; become a consumer. How do you feel when a site, application, or mobile app is slow to give you what you want? I’ll give you some idea:

The stress levels of volunteers who took part in the study rose significantly when they were confronted with a poor online shopping experience, proving the existence of ‘Web Stress’. Brain wave analysis from the experiment revealed that participants had to concentrate up to 50% more when using badly performing websites, while EOG technology* and behavioural analysis of the subjects also revealed greater agitation and stress in these periods. (“Web Stress: A Wake Up Call for European Business”, emphasis mine)

I know it comes from a competitor, but it is true. It applies to me; it applies to you. And web performance professionals need to step away from the screens for a minute and put themselves in the shoes of the people standing on the platform.
Everyday, your online applications change, grow, fail, falter, and evolve – the train is always moving. To the people on the platform, all they see is your train and how it’s moving compared to the other trains they have watched go by. You worked hard on your train, polishing the brass, adding new cars, even upgrading the engine. To you, the train is a magnificent achievement that everyone should admire, especially now that the new engine makes it so much faster!
The customer on the platform is measuring how your updated train is moving compared to the MAGLEV bullet train on the super-conducting rail next to you and asking “How come this train is so slow?”
The complexity of a modern web site is astounding, and improving performance by 0.4 seconds is often a feat worthy of applause…among web performance professionals. From the perspective of your customers, that 0.4 second improvement is still not enough.
Web performance is a numbers game. As an industry, we have been focused on one set of numbers for too long. The customer experience, not the stopwatch, has to drive your company to the next level of performance maturity. To do that, you have to step off your online application train and take a cold hard look at what you deliver to your customers, alongside them down on the platform.

The Three Pillars of Web Performance

Had a great conversation with a colleague today. She and I were bouncing around some ideas, and I listed my top 3 topics in Web performance as “Speed, Revenue, and Experience”. She was quick to correct me.
“No, not revenue, conversions”.
She was right. Just last week, I talked about how critical it is to convert visitors into customers. Doing this in some businesses doesn’t mean that there is any revenue, but the goal remains the same.
Speed is the one everything thinks is the same as Web Performance. It’s not. It’s the don’t be that guy measure of Web Performance, the one that can be easily quantified and put on display. But performance for an online application is so much more than raw speed.
Experience is the hardest of the three to measure, because what it is depends on who you ask. Is it design, flow, ease of use, clarity, or none of these things? But a fast application can still make people cranky. There are online applications that are clearly designed to make the customer do things the way the vendor demands and these are the ones that make you go “Why am I here?”.
Now, can all the metrics that measure Web Performance be distilled to Speed, Conversions, and Experience? If you stepped away from the very product specific terms the Web Performance industry uses every day, what would describe the final, bottled, and served essence of Web Performance?

Customer Experience: The Vanishing Reviews

SJE is an excellent supporter of the online economy. However, she is also very focused on the experience she suffers through on many online retail applications. The question I get frequently from the other end of the living room (Retail and Wardrobe Management Control Center – see image) is: “Is Company X a customer? Because their site (is slow | is badly designed | doesn’t work | sucks)!”.
Most of the time, there isn’t much to do, and the site usually responds and SJE is able to complete the task she is focused on.
Last night, however, a retailer did something that strayed into new territory. This company unwittingly affected the customer experience to such a degree that they actually destroyed the trust of a long-term customer.
This isn’t good for me, as I wear a lot of fine products from this retailer. But even in my eyes, they committed a grievous sin.
This retailer decided, for reasons that are known only to them, to delete a number of negative comments, reviews, and ratings for a product that they have for sale.
I just checked, and sure enough, all of the comments, including my wife’s very strong negative feedback about the quality, are gone.
I can think of a number of really devious and greedy reasons why a company might do this. It could also be an accident. If it was an accident, you might want to note that reviews and comments for this product were accidentally lost.
Now, if you went to a retailer and saw that your comments and reviews had been deleted, how would you feel? Would you trust that retailer ever again? What would happen if the twittering masses picked up the meme and started to add fuel to the bonfire?
A strong business, a solid design, an amazing presentation, and unrivaled delivery aren’t enough for some businesses. As a company, there is substantial effort, time, and treasure dedicated to converting visitors into customers. And it sometimes takes only one boneheaded move to turn a customer into the anti-customer.
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Customer Experience: Standing on your own four legs

Tables. They’re pretty ubiquitous. You might even be using one right now (although in the modern mobile world, you may not. LAMP POST!).
A strong business is like a table, supported by four legs.

  • The Business. The reason that resources and people have been gathered together. There is a vision of what the group wants to do and what success looks like.
  • The Design. Don’t think style; think Design/Build. This is where the group takes the business idea and determines how they will make it happen, where the stores will be, what a datacenter looks like, who they will partner with.
  • The Presentation. How the Business and the Design are shown to people. How the shelves are stocked, the landing pages look, the advertising is placed, how the business looks to potential customers.
  • The Delivery. This is the critical part of how the business uses the systems they have designed and the presentation they have crafted to deliver something of value to the potential customer.

Without any one of these, an organization will fail to meet the most critical goal it has set to be successful: an experience that turns a visitor or browser into a customer.
All the Business and MBA grads in the audience are yawning, and slapping their Venti non-fat, no-whip, decaf soy lattés down on the table. This message isn’t for you. Well, it is, but you can stand up and give your chair to one of the people behind you.
Now that I have Dev, QA, and Operations sitting with me (remember, the Business guys are still in the back of the room, tapping away on their Blackberries), tell me what you think of this conceptual table. How does the Table of Customer Experience relate to you?
Ok, put down the Red Bulls and Monsters and listen: Everything that Dev, QA, or Operations does has an effect on the experience (negative or positive) of the potential customer. If one of the table legs is broken (or even shorter than the others), the rippling shockwaves will eventually affect the entire operation.
So, if I were to ask the member so of your organization how their daily activities supported the online application in each of these four areas, do you think they could answer?
Grab a white board. This is going to be a long day.
Picture courtesy of sashafatcat

Overcoming the Momentum of Traditional Web Performance

When I asked if traditional Web performance still mattered, the post generated a flurry of comments and questions that I haven’t seen in in a long time.
After some reflection and discussions with people who have been tackling this problem for longer than I have, the answer is yes, it does matter. However, synthetic Web performance measurement will not matter the way it does now. The synthetic approach will decrease in importance within fully evolved companies, organizations that have strong cultures of Web performance.
In these organizations, the questions change as the approach becomes foundational and integral to the operation of the online business. Ways of examining competition and performance improvement evolve, and the focus moves – from the perspective of We have a problem to one of of Our customers / visitors have a problem.

customer focus diagram
The Focus of Web Performance

The shift is fundamental and critical. For as long as I have been in the business, synthetic measurements have served as a proxy for customer experience. But unless you get into the browser, out to where and how the customer uses the online application, the margin of error will remain large.
The customer is not an operational issue. There is no technical fix for perceived performance.
There is no easy solution for evolving the experience of performance.
Image courtesy of james_gordon_los_angeles

Does Traditional Web Performance Still Matter?

More than two years ago, I created a post that was frank in its statement that Web performance measurement isn’t just a technology issue, it’s a business issue.
As we approach 2012, a new question is driving how I examine the world I work in: Does traditional Web performance still matter?
Seems drastic and will raise the ire of more than a few folks I know, but it is a valid point of discussion. The entire Web performance industry needs to look around and determine how they got where they are and what the world will look like in 5 years.
The “Web” as it was defined when I started in the industry was simple – browser and page driven, with a growing focus on delivering services to visitors. Now, there is no definition of “Web” that can encompass everything that can be used when talking to companies. And in many cases, if asked, companies may not fully understand how customers interact with their online properties on a daily basis.
I used to be able to say what determined fast Web performance. Now, the simple answer is irrelevant, replaced with the reality of “It depends”. Fast is completely dependent on what is being done, when and where is it happening, how things being done, and who is driving the way it is is done.
I am issuing a challenge to the entire Web performance industry: Step back and and ask yourself if we are asking and answering the right questions for the companies we work with.
If we don’t find out now, in 5 years it won’t matter.