You are the worst judge of your web site’s performance. Here’s why.

After writing about VCs and load time benchmarks a couple of days ago, I was struck by this comment made by Fred Wilson, which I kind of glossed over the first few times I read it:

“I think that power users sometimes have a bit of sympathetic eye to the challenges of building really fast web apps, and maybe they’re willing to live with it, but when I look at my wife and kids, they’re my mainstream view of the world. If something is slow, they’re just gone.”

In our community, I think this power user mentality is our worst enemy. It’s something we have to actively fight against — both in the people we work with and, more insidiously, in ourselves. And this fight is neverending.

Everyone here at Strangeloop is a power user. Our clients are power users. Our partners are power users. You, by virtue of reading this post, are probably a power user.

On one hand, we are the people who are most likely to get, in theory, that faster is better. But in practice, I’m willing to bet that we’re more forgiving of slow sites and apps than we should be, to our peril. Here’s why.

We have the best tools.

Chances are, you’re using a late-model browser. (In fact, Google Analytics tells me that, if you’re reading this blog, there’s only a tiny chance you’re using anything older than IE8.) You’re using a souped-up computer on a snappy connection. You’re getting an elite user experience that is shared by such a statistically tiny minority that it’s pretty much irrelevant.

(Remember this video? Last year, Google did man-on-the-street interviews and asked random people what a browser is. Ninety-two percent didn’t know. These people aren’t dumb. They’re people who have better things to do than obsessively follow new browser releases. These people are your real users.)

We’re too sympathetic to the trials of development.

Building a good site or app is HARD. It needs to be attractive, interesting, engaging, useful, persuasive, entertaining, robust and, of course, fast. Those of us who have been through countless development cycles know that this hard work is being done, for the most part, by good, smart people who really do care about building great products. Because of this, and despite ourselves, we turn a blind eye to mediocre performance.

Mainstream web users don’t care about the pains of web development. Why should they? If you buy a car and it ends up being a lemon, do you take a moment to reflect on the fascinating complexity of the internal combustion engine and how hard it must be to do the repetitive assembly-line work of assembling a hundred of these amazing machines every day? Of course you don’t. You just want your car to take you from point A to point B without exploding. This is a very reasonable expectation.

We know how to cheat.

If I’m on an ad-driven site that’s taking too long to load, I hit the refresh button. I know that the slow load time was probably caused by a badly designed ad on a poorly optimized page, and that refreshing the page will probably launch a new ad that will load faster. You probably know this trick and have a bunch of other workarounds in your arsenal. Regular web users do not.

The average site visitor won’t hit refresh. He or she will wait and wait for the page to finally load… or bounce. I’m always touting the stat that says that up to 57% of online consumers will abandon a site after waiting 3 seconds for a page to load, but sometimes even I have a hard time believing it. But numbers don’t lie, which leads me to my next point…

If you can’t trust your own judgment, what can you trust?

Now that I’ve established that our gut instincts are completely useless, here’s what you can rely on:

  1. Real-user performance monitoring — Whatever tool you use, whether it’s something like Webpagetest or one of the solid RUM products on the market, you need to constantly collect data about how your users experience your site. (See this post for more information on how to do this.)
  2. Track your metrics — Try some good old-fashioned A/B testing. Accelerate your site for half your traffic, and let the other half visit the unaccelerated site. Let this test run for a few days or weeks. Track metrics like page views, bounce rate, time on site and, of course, conversions and revenue. Numbers are truth.
  3. Stay current with third-party research — Stay up-to-date with research being done by other organizations. Reading widely will give you a good overall snapshot and help you spot trends. (You can start with my stats cheat sheet.)

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7 thoughts on “You are the worst judge of your web site’s performance. Here’s why.

  1. My personal experience has been opposite to what you explain…

    Since the time ive started bothering into web speed issues… ive become more impatient towards web speed issues… if i click on a link and it doesnt open “fast” i just go away…

    I feel im becoming more impatient than the regular user.

  2. @sajal – I would agree. By second 4, I am debugging my DNS resolver (not literally, but I have long since departed). I have zero patience.

    @Josh – Web performance is a real problem and as a business consideration has really started to come to the fore recently thanks mostly in part to the work and effort of people such as yourself. It is a hot topic, something cool and trendy, something that “Google does.” Whole industries are literally being built around it. In my opinion, I believe you have merely mislabeled the the segment. It is not the power users, but the wannabes. Often it is those that give the matter only passing lip service who drive the “Business” (capitalized to emphasize the metaphorical personality) that sabotages a performance effort and I rest the blame at squarely at their feet.

    It is the Business that wants performance for the benefit it will bring to the bottom line. But, it is also the Business that refuses to actually weigh the potential revenue of the Feature against the cost of the Fast (deferred or delayed). It is the Business that refuses to do the cost analysis, and even when it does, it will not provide the resources (engineer and developer time) to actually address the problem because it is the Business that also wants that awesome new social button and widget bolted on every page.

    In many cases, I believe that it can be safely stated that the potential revenue of a single development cycle devoted to new features pales in comparison to the short and long term gains were that same time devoted to the optimization of the existing site. A statement even more true for business that rely on SEO for a significant portion of their revenue (users referred through SEO often have no preexisting loyalty to the site or brand and I would speculate are the least likely of any potential audience to have sympathy for an under performing page).

    In my experience, the task and role of a power user inside the business is almost sisyphean. There is nothing special about my education or the role I fill or any other power user for that matter that separates us from the wannabes. The information is publicly available, the statistics and the math are real, the long term studies are in, even the tools (are mostly free). The difference is merely one of dedication and commitment. The difference is one of simple effort.

    Performance is not a switch, it is not a process that ends, and the rock is always waiting to be rolled.

  3. Pingback: Are your performance goals audacious enough? — Web Performance Today

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