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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