Web Performance: The Myopia of Speed

In February 2010, Fred Wilson spoke to the Future of Web Apps Conference. He delivered a speech emphasizing 10 things that make a Web application successful.
The one that seems to have stuck in everyone’s mind is the first of these. People have focused, quoted, and written almost exclusively about number one:

First and foremost, we believe that speed is more than a feature. Speed is the most important feature.

Strong words.
Fred has worked with Web and mobile companies for many years, so he comes at this with a modicum of experience. And for years, I would have agreed with this. But Fred goes on to describe 9 other items that don’t get the same Google-juice that this one quote does. There are probably 10 more that companies could come up with.
But a maniacal focus on speed means that in some companies, all else is tossed in order for that goal of achieving some insane, straight-line, one-dimensional goal. Some companies are likely investigating faster than light technologies to make the delivery of online applications even faster.
Can you base your entire business on having the fastest online application? What do you have to do to be fast?
Strip it down. Lose the weight, the bloat, the features. And what’s left is a powerful beast designed to do one party trick, likely at the expense of some other aspect of the business that supports the application.
If a company focuses on a few metrics, a few key indicators, they might evolve up to NASCAR, where it is not just speed, but cornering, that matters. Only left-hand corners, mind you, but corners nonetheless. Here speed is important, but is balanced against availability and consistency to ensure that a complete view of the value of the site is understood.
But is that enough? Do your customers always want to go left in your application? What happens if you are asked to allow some customers to go right? Do all of the other performance factors that you have worked on suddenly collapse?
As you can tell, growing up means that my taste in fast cars and racing forms has evolved, become more complex. Straight-line speed, followed by multi-dimensional perspectives have led me to realize that speed is only one feature.
So, if top-fuel and stock-car racing aren’t my gig, what is?
For a number of years in the 1980s and again since 2008, I have had a love of Formula One. The complexity of what these machines are trying to achieve boggles the mind.
Formula One is speed, of that there is no doubt. But there is cornering (left and right), weight distribution, brake temperature, fuel mix, traffic, uphill (and downhill, sometimes with corners!), street courses and track courses. And there are 24 answers to the same question in every race.
And then, there is a driver. In Formula One, a driver with an “inferior” car can win the day, if that inferiority is what is particularly suited to that course, in the hands of a skilled manager.
There is no doubt that like Formula One, speed is key to coming out on top. But if the organization is focused solely on speed, then your view of performance will never evolve. The key to ensuring a complete Web performance experience is a maniacal focus on a matrix of items: speed, complexity, third-parties, availability, server uptime, network reliability, design, product, supply-chain, inventory management integration, authentication, security, and on and on.
The Web application is a just that: a web. Multi-dependent factor and performance indicators that must be weighed, balanced, and prioritized to succeed. No web application, no online application, fixed or mobile, will survive without speed.
However, if speed is all you have, is that enough to keep someone coming back?
Is your organization saying that speed is all there is to performance?

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