Six years ago, if you had asked me what the most important problems in Web performance were, I would have reeled off a list that was focused on technology and configuration: HTTP compression, HTTP persistent connections, caching, etc. In fact, six years on, these are still the concepts that dominate Web performance conversations.
Slowly, glacially, shaped by six years of working with customers and clients, listening to the Web performance conversations that flow across the Web and within companies, I realize that technology is only one component of the Web performance solution.
Web Performance is NOT Just Technology
Most organizations focus too much of their efforts on solving the technical problems because they are discrete, easy to track, and produce quantifiable results.
But a highly tuned engine with a rusted chassis, four flat wheels, and a voided warranty still has a Web performance problem, even if it is technically sound.
The complexity of the issue arises from the terminology used. Web performance, in current parlance, refers almost completely to the delivery of the site in an appropriate and measurable manner.
Web performance is not simply the generation and delivery of HTML and other objects. Web performance is conversation that defines the basic nature of any Web site.
Approaching Web performance, as I had for so many years, as a technical problem with a discrete solution overlooks the true nature of Web performance. A culture of effective Web performance absorbs a number of different inputs, and then ensures that the site performs across many different vectors, not just the two-dimensional response/success over time graph.
Web Performance is Culture and Communication
Web performance is an issue of culture. And at the root of all cultures lies communication.
The Web performance conversation has three components, each one shaping the potential response to the problem and providing elements of the solution.
1. Technical Capabilities
Technical organizations spend a great deal of their time defining what they can't do. In an organization that has a culture of effective Web performance, the technical teams provide clear definitions of the current capabilities, and clearly demonstrate how far they can take the organization down the chosen path, hopefully without spending all of the company's treasure.
2. Business Objectives
Just as the technical organization has to define what they can do with what they have, the business organization has to come to the table with a clear definition of what they want to achieve. If a business goal is clearly stated to the technical team, then a conversation about where there may be challenges and opportunities can occur. When business and IT talk and listen, a company is becoming far more effective at delivering the best site they can.
3. Customer Expectations
Neglected, forgotten, nay, even ignored, the role of the customers' expectations in the Web performance equation is just as critical as the other two participants. With clear business objectives and defined technical capabilities, a site can still be seen as a Web performance failure if the expectations of the customer are not met. And it is not simply listening to customer and providing everything they want. It's understanding why they need a feature/function/option in order to be more successful at what they do, and balancing that against the other two players in the conversation.
But where does an organization that wants to take Web performance beyond the technical problem, and into the realm of the strategic solution go?
Do a search on any search engine and you will find page upon page of technical solutions to a supposedly technical problem. Web performance is not solely a technical problem. In many cases, the site is configured and tweaked and tuned and accelerated to such a degree that you have to wonder if is under-performing out of spite more than any other reason.
Scratch the surface. Look beyond the shiny toys and massively-scaled infrastructure and you will find that technology is not the issue. The demand placed on the site by the business are bogging the site down in ways that no amount of tuning could improve.
Perhaps the business goals of the site, the need to support the business, have pushed the technology to its breaking point or beyond, but the technology team cannot clearly articulate what the problem or solution is.
Maybe customers, used to competitors delivering one level of Web performance and experience are simply not happy with the site, no matter how tuned it is and how clearly the call to action may be.
Making a Web site perform effectively means stepping back and asking some key questions:
- Why do we have a site?
- How does this site help our business?
- Why do our customers use our site?
- Do we like using our site?
- What are our competitors doing?
- What are the best Web companies doing?
These seem like silly questions. But you may be surprised by the differing answers you get.
And from there, the conversation can start.
Simply put, Web performance is not about understanding how to make your site faster. Web performance is about understanding what you can do to make your site better. An effective Web site is one that is shaped by a culture of effective Web performance.
Striving to make a better, more effective Web site may lead to such profound cultural and organizational changes that the process ends up making a better company. A company where the Web site is seen as an active conversation shared with employees, shareholders, investors, and customers.
A conversation where you explain what can be done, why you are doing it, and how you will do it. A conversation where you listen to what must be done, how it is expected to work, and what the customer defines as success.
So when you wake up six years from now, and realize that the day you stopped treating your Web site as a technical problem that needed to be fixed, and started seeing it as an opportunity to create a more effective business, I hope you smile.