Faster Is Better, but There Is Better than Faster
In the world of streaming media we tend to focus solely on the presentation of the content. To what device is it going? Is it HD or SD? Is it original and unique? Can we charge for it? And organizations have built their success on the back of such strategy.
But let’s face it—more unique, HD, interactive content is being built everyday. It’s cheaper now than it ever was before (and the cost will continue to drop over the years to come). The problem is that all that other content is vying for the attention of your audience which means you have to turn your focus somewhere else to help you keep and maintain engagement. That “somewhere else” is performance—the quality of delivery.
In today’s digital world, just having unique and engaging content isn’t enough. The digital experience in which users find that content has to perform well. It has to load fast, respond quickly, and give audiences no reason to leave.
Good content is everywhere. And although you may have a unique piece or two—of course, there are exceptions such as Disney, Netflix, Amazon, and their like—users aren’t looking for a single piece of content. They are looking for a library. They are looking for a digital experience that has lots of content they can continually come back to watch. And that’s how the game has really changed. Because in that world, where it takes more than just a few pieces of content to keep someone engaged, performance can be a critical differentiator.
What is Performance?
In today’s digital world, consumer expectations for performance have never been more demanding. In a New York Times article from last year, Google researchers had discovered that if a site loads 250ms slower than a competitor’s (which is faster than we blink or eyes, by the way), people would migrate to a competitor site over time. What this tells us is that, deep down, we are wired to recognize when things are slow. And as we have become spoiled with broadband internet access, our expectations for digital experiences have followed suit. It has to be fast, or we are gone.
You may think that measuring the “performance” of your individual content assets is indicative of how well users receive your digital experience (I put that word in quotes here because it often means counting “likes” and “retweets” which is no real measure of performance). What you probably don’t understand is that your website, your mobile site, your apps, your games—they are all viewed as “content” in your user’s eyes. Sure, one piece may be of particular interest (like a cool video) but when it comes down to it, everything you make and publish digitally is content.
People don’t want to wait. When they do, it can have significant impact to your business—users will leave the site when it doesn’t load fast enough (or when the elements you want them to interact with are only clickable after the site has completely loaded); they will navigate away from videos that buffer; they will uninstall applications because they aren’t responsive. And all of these equate to one thing—money. Lost ad impressions, lost sales, lost conversions, and more.
So where is the disconnection? By focusing so much on creating that digital experience filled with great content, organizations fail to consider the operational requirements for providing those experiences that meet (or exceed) customer expectations for performance. It’s like opening a restaurant without thinking about the logistics of running it—washing dishes, serving, cooking—and fixing issues only when they happen.
Performance today is all about speed. It’s all about answering the question, “How fast does my website load?” It’s all about measuring “time to load.” But that’s not a truly accurate representation of a digital experience’s performance, because it only takes into consideration some parts of it and, more importantly, neglects a critical component of understanding how the digital experience is perceived by the end user (that’s right, sometimes even though the numbers say everything is going fast, the users are saying it’s slow).
It’s clear, though, that something has to be measured—how fast everything is loading, how responsive the interactivity is, how often the video switches bitrates. Why? Because the responsiveness of a digital experience can make or break audience engagement. It’s like this:
- You develop a digital experience to convert visitors into customers
- Your digital experience is slow
- People leave and go to other digital experiences
- You have no opportunity to engage
Performance is all about maximizing user engagement.
The Components of Performance
The good thing is that performance isn’t some mystical “never, never land”. The pieces that can impact performance are actually very well known and fall into one of two camps—server and client.
On the server side, there are a number of elements, including the following:
- infrastructure (i.e., disk I/O, memory I/O, network card, etc.)
- latency (the time between when a request is presented to a system, like a web server, and when it responds)
- load time (of the entire digital experience)
- time to interaction (when the user actually started interacting with the site)
What can you do?
There are lots of ways that you can utilize the server to improve the performance of your digital experience:
- SSDs for origin storage. Get away from spindles and disk drives. Get on the SSD bandwagon. The improvement of I/O when requests for content come back to origin can shave milliseconds off middle-mile latency.
- Store closer to point of request. There’s no reason a request for your content should have to travel the continental United States and back. Store your content as close to the end-users as possible, which means using cloud-based resources that are peered with internet access networks.
- Use a CDN. CDNs are purpose-built networks for content delivery. They have points-of-presence all around the world which utilize caching and replication to make sure that your content, once requested, is available as close to the end user as possible.
- Performance-as-a-Service. Tackling the performance monster yourself can be daunting. There are so many different technologies (and infrastructure) you need to make your digital experiences perform better that it may make more sense to utilize a provider who specializes in performance. That way you get all the benefit without the headache.
On the client side, in most cases, it’s either about a browser or an operating system. The challenge with the client side isn’t necessarily implementing technologies that will improve loading (as that can all be done server-side), it’s understanding user perception. There are many times when a site may seem like it’s performing well (based on the reports) but to user’s perception, it’s still slow. An example might be with a customized video player that integrates social media. If one of the social sites is responding slowly, it may hold up the ability to play the video.
What can you do?
There are lots of ways that you can utilize the client to improve the performance of your digital experience:
- Pre-request. When users visit your website, you should push content to them that they will need for other pages. This could be video, large images, or big scripts. When they visit the webpage where those assets are needed, they’ll be able to pull them locally instead of remotely.
- Compression. One of the tenants of digital experience optimization is compression. Images. Scripts. Whatever you can compress to reduce the overall load time, the better.
- Browser optimization. All browsers load content differently. That means you can’t just code your digital experience for a single browser. Front-end optimization technologies can help optimize your digital experience dynamically for the browser that’s requesting it.
- Re-order what’s loaded. A user’s worst opinion of a digital experience is mostly likely formed when a user can’t interact with the experience (or the element with which they want to interact) until it has completely loaded. Rather than force them to wait for everything, force interactive elements (like videos) to load first and other elements later. This kind of strategy is part of front-end optimization.
Consider Performance Earlier
Of course, even our understanding of performance is broken. When organizations do embrace the need for “operational readiness,” they are often only focused on fixing the elements that break. There is nothing proactive. This means that the consideration of improving performance is an after-thought. What happens when the digital experience is broken? When it loads slowly? Users leave. So the organization improves the speed. But getting those lost users back is almost impossible. In addition, focusing just on fixing the one thing that’s broken doesn’t take into account the myriad other elements throughout the transaction journey that might be teetering on the edge of breaking.
Optimizing the experience isn’t something that you can do in a vacuum. It has to become part of the very way that your digital experience is built.
The growing complexity of digital experiences is actually at the root of all of this. It’s what makes a collection of web pages, video, mobile sites, and games, all relying on dynamic content, into a digital experience. Here’s an example—go to the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine and check out NFL.com from say, 2003. Then go to the actual NFL.com website. The difference is staggering and punctuates the point of why performance is so critical today. But not only have websites grown in complexity and become more dynamic, they are also cross-platform.
Why then do most organizations approach performance reactively? If everything is become more complex, cross-platform, and perceived by users as a collective “digital experience,” why do organizations develop their content, coalesce it into a digital experience, and “bolt” on performance-improvement technologies and processes only after the fact? The operational-readiness of a digital experience to meet consumer expectations has to be addressed during the development itself (sure, it may be a little hard to imagine having a software engineering meeting about a new feature or interactive content element and addressing the architecture for delivering it at the same time).
For organizations to integrate performance-improvement into the very DNA of their digital experiences, they need to practice PACE—Planning, Architecture, Comparison, and Execution. In the planning process, developers must take into consideration what the key metrics will be (yes, this will actually involve other organizational entities like marketing in the development process). Once that’s done, they can architect a digital experience that will meet those expectations. Of course, planning and architecting shouldn’t be done in a vacuum. Organizations need to analyze their competitors’ digital experiences. How fast are they? How responsive? How end-user focused? Finally, it’s all about execution. Right now, most organizations practice only the E and C, but in reverse. They execute and then compare when they don’t feel they are getting the traffic/traction they were expecting.
Seeing the Forest for the Trees
What PACE points out is that performance is more than just making one part of a digital experience go faster. It’s not just about a website. Or a mobile app. Or a video. It’s about all of them.
It’s about being better than faster.
The problem with performance today isn’t just that it doesn’t measure all the parts that need to be measured, it’s that it doesn’t connect them all together. A digital experience, when it spans multiple platforms, is holistic. One poor-performing part of the experience impacts all the other parts. Back to the restaurant example, a bad experience at one location of a restaurant may sour a consumer on ever going back to the chain at all. Take that to the digital world. You setup a landing page with a video. The video buffers. The user may never visit your website (which is what you wanted them to do as it was the call-to-action in the video) because of the experience on just a landing page. Back to the restaurant—how many times have you walked out of a restaurant after your experience of waiting for a table or the because of the state of the waiting area?
Focusing on the Transaction Journey
When we start to see digital experiences for what they are—requests for and interaction with digital assets—we can start to see performance holistically. Because each request is a “transaction journey.” The journey starts with and ends with the client, but everything in between touches all the systems responsible for providing the digital experience—web servers, media servers, object storage, acceleration boxes, caching, etc. Organizations that truly want to improve the performance of their digital experiences will map their transaction journeys and measure each step of the way to understand the overall impact of the journey on the user perception of performance. Of course, proactive organizations will do that ahead of time by creating a prototype of a digital experience (infrastructure and all) to optimize development and the infrastructure itself (i.e., removing transaction journey steps that aren’t needed). Performance becomes part of the development process. Ultimately, focusing on the transaction journey not only enables organizations to optimize their digital experiences, it provides them a means to stop being reactive. Rather than being the restaurant that opens for business without a fire inspection (because they have to be open right now), an organization focused on the transaction journey from the start can use a PACE-model to be the restaurant that is ready to open…and provide customers a great experience.
What can you do?
Well, first, you have to make performance a priority. That much is a given. It has to be part of your consideration when developing content in the first place, answering the questions: “how does this content need to be delivered? What will my users expect of it?” Here are a few things that you can do to create digital experiences that have a far better chance of meeting today’s consumer expectations:
- Prototype the transaction journey. Don’t just prototype your application. Build a model of how the application will fetch and return data (and what systems will be needed).
- Plan with metrics. Most digital experience development has nothing to do with metrics. Metrics are for measuring after the fact. In order to avoid a vicious “break/fix” cycle, metrics should influence how a digital experience’s transaction journey is architected.
- Improve your PACE. Don’t leave performance as a bolt-on. Employ the same development processes you would for an application or website. Plan. Architecture. Compare. Execute.
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