Web Performance and the Perception of Speed

web performance speed
Many businesses have already realized–and some are just now realizing–that one of the last remaining ways to differentiate themselves is to deliver amazing customer experiences.  This is something you need to take pretty seriously, before someone takes your customers away from you.  The truth is, from a business perspective, quality is about delivering amazing customer experiences that delight users.

The science of customer experience defines how an individual perceives their entire relationship with your organization.  User experience, a subset of customer experience, defines an individual’s perception of their digital relationship with your organization. The new digital world is expanding the way people who have never not-known smartphones and Facebook think and act.  The science and scope of user experience as mobile and social interactions is also expanding. (To be a little nostalgic, it kind of feels like the Internet circa 1995.)

I have been a huge proponent of how important perception is as it relates to understanding performance.  And for a long time I’ve felt like the Dev and Ops world focused too much on the “technical” metrics about web performance and user experience.  About four years ago, an e-commerce manager I met at a conference really drove this home for me when as we were talking.  She said, “You and all the other monitoring tools tell me how long it takes to load each and every component of my web page, but all I really care about is how long it takes the user to see the page above the fold.”  This was a watershed moment for me.

If you are part of the web performance and user experience set you’ve probably heard of Steve Souders.  He’s the chairman of the Velocity conferences, the guy who created Y-slow at Yahoo years ago, an author of a number of books on front-end performance and a real teacher and student. Check out this less than 5-minute talk he did at Velocity 2013.

It is titled “The Illusion of Speed”


(Of course, as a bit of a car guy, I love the reference to the, ahem, “sport” button in the Fiat.)

Steve really makes the key point at about 4:45 in the video.

‘The real thing we are after is to create a user experience that people love and they feel is fast… and so we might be front-end engineers, we might be dev, we might be ops, but what we really are is… Perception brokers.”

What’s really exciting to me is that this softer side of performance and engagement is usually reserved for Marketing: branding, production, customer experience, user experience, copy writing, and other aspects of the business that focus on the softer side of the customer interaction and yet here– to all of the Development and Operations folks– Steve is saying we are all Perception Brokers.

All I can say to that is AMEN, brother!

Okay, so I’m going to boast a bit now. AlertSite has some really awesome capabilities that help understand user experience by empirically measuring “perceived” performance so you can really understand what speed means.

Our visual performance measurement provides two valuable new metrics and supporting screenshots.  AlertSite’s FirstPaint time measures the point at which the eyeballs would notice the first burst of paint activity on the screen, and Above the Fold measures the point at which the eyeballs would see the page stabilize in the viewport of the browser.  We collect all the traditional web performance data as well– such as fullpage load time and the page load timing from the web browser.

Let’s look at a recent example from Amazon.com.

The fullpage load time, the traditional web performance metric showing the time it takes to download each and every resource associated with the home page, is 5.7 seconds.

And yet, from a user experience perspective, at about .8 seconds the user would have seen this:

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At about 2.5 seconds the user would have seen this:

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How is your organization understanding the visual performance of your web based touchpoints?

Let’s face it. The iPhone and other always-on-always-connected devices and consequent social interactions have changed us all. They have changed what we as users expect in terms of ease of use, access, community and availability.  It’s no longer enough to deliver an experience that’s adequate. Delivering high-quality user experiences means users need to perceive it is fast, feel good about it, and have fun using it!  All I’m offering you is the truth.

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