5 Reasons Web Speed Is in the Eye of the Beholder
Test and Monitor | Posted February 05, 2013

We really are in the age of the customer, with today's empowered and connected buyers demanding a new level of interaction from those of us who want their attention. That means it's no longer enough for customers to feel like their online interaction with you was just "okay." It's no longer enough for customers to feel like it was easy.

What separates decent applications from great ones is that the interaction was not only sufficient and easy, but actually enjoyable.

My colleague, Joshua Bixby, recently blogged about the relationship between Web performance and happiness. While I agree with all of the sentiment, I see the anatomy of delighting users in terms of online customer experiences slightly differently.

Applications delight users by delivering experiences that are fast and feel-good, while still helping us accomplish the task at hand. Great user experiences are all about usability - and usability is all about flow and speed.

Usability testing is designed to answer five key questions of flow that affect the user’s perception, including:

  1. Was I able to accomplish my task?
  2. Was it clear how to go about doing that?
  3. Was anything too obtrusive?
  4. Was anything too hidden?
  5. Was it enjoyable

Good design principles help address many of the challenges around usability and flow. I actually believe the mobile industry has forced us to consider usability with renewed focus. The smaller screen demands that the next logical user interaction be clearly designated so that there is no confusion about what to do next. And probably our collective ADHD requires better prompting to stay on task.

While you can change the flow of the application with additional development work, once that web application has been released to production it's all about speed! The harder question here is: What are the demonstrable measures of speed from an end-user perspective, and what do the numbers really mean?

Speed, as far as I'm concerned, is in the eyes of the beholder. What do I mean by that? I mean that if the user perceives the page is fully loaded then it IS loaded, because by the time a user evaluates and begins interacting seconds will have passed and the rest of the page really will be loaded. Put another way: first impressions are everything - if it looks fast, it is fast!

The more technical metrics that all of us in the Web performance business have relied on for more than 10 years as a proxy for end-user experience, while still an important reference point and operational indicator, are often unable to measure speed as the user sees it. I collected some reference data from five of the leading retail websites during the entire month of December last year.

These were real browser performance monitors that tested the home pages every 15-minutes from Ft. Lauderdale, Atlanta, San Francisco, Dallas and Salt Lake City. The data collected includes full-page load time, DOM and page load, as well as metrics like "First Paint" and "Above The Fold" time using AlertSite's visual user experience technology.

first paint chart

One common thread is that all of the top retail sites are delivering at least a first impression in around a second. And while the full-page load times show some sites loading in four, five or six seconds, what the user sees is very different. Let's look at an average sample for a current Amazon home page.

The traditional full-page response time for this test was 6.27 seconds. That may seem really slow, but let’s step back and take a quick look at that waterfall report:

Amazon Waterfall Report

That’s a lot of content, and it’s why it’s taking more than six seconds to load each and every resource on the page. And yet the page is visible to the user in just over a second. Now that’s Amaz-ing!



And it’s completely rendered above the fold is just 2.3 seconds.


So, the next time you are analyzing your website performance, don’t forget the most important measurement: the eyes of the beholder. While it’s a great technical accomplishment to have your site optimized on technical measurements alone, it’s a far greater accomplishment to have your users walk away with a memorable and enjoyable experience at your site, and return time and time again.

See also:

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