Life in the Fast Lane

A single attribute of a digital platform may determine whether or not today's hyper-efficient consumers bolt

At the recent kickoff meeting for the redesign of a major content brand's Web site, things were going almost too smoothly. In my experience, projects should challenge you right from the start. Had we missed something? I scanned the seven-month roadmap again, but no big issue stuck out.

Finally, the lone representative from the client's IT department looked like she was about to break her silence. "Shouldn't the real priority be speeding up our Web site?" she asked.

For the first time all day, here was a question nobody wanted to take. No one was going to stand up and say speed wasn't important. But everyone knew the realities of reducing a Web site's response time were just too messy and involved dependencies with too many departments. It was all so complicated. You could almost feel people wishing this woman would have saved her smarty-pants suggestion for someone else's kickoff.

I couldn't say it out loud, but she had just become my hero.

Why Speed?
Speed needs to be one of your top business goals. Now, it may seem like speed is just another attribute of site performance and not a business goal at all. It may strike you - and used to strike me, in fact - as just something that makes the actual business goals feasible. Never mind. Put it on the list. In fact, if you want to make today's consumers truly happy and keep them engaged, put it at the top of the list so everyone can see it.

Is this obsessive? After all, if the content of an application or Web site is good enough, won't users just wait for it? And, don't most things work pretty well today just the way they are, even with a little loading time?

Take a look at the Web sites we recently tested. Each site was allowed to load for 10 seconds before we took a snapshot image of what the user saw at that point. Now think about which of those sites you'd be willing to use when you're in a rush to solve a problem (which happens to be a fairly accurate description of most Internet users most of the time).

It turns out speed is even more positively correlated with user engagement (and ultimately profit) than it might initially appear.

Speed in Action
Google Search
Not surprisingly, the most persuasive data points come from Google. In optimizing its search experience, Google once experimented with returning a higher number of results. This seemed like a logical way to make the overall search process feel faster. Well, users didn't like the change. They started using Google less. Was this decreased usage attributable to the longer, more cluttered page? No. It turned out the culprit was the additional half-a-second it took the new, longer page to load. Half-a-second in additional wait time was leading people to abandon Google.

"Slowing down the search results page by 100 to 400 milliseconds has a measurable impact on the number of searches per user of -0.2 percent to -0.6 percent," said Google's Jake Brutlag. "Even if the page returns to the faster state, users who saw the longer delay take time to return to their previous usage level."

Millions of people visit in order to download the Firefox browser. You would expect these users to be very motivated to get the browser and patient enough to wait a couple seconds. You'd be wrong. "After implementing changes in an A/B test, we saw impressive results. We predicted a one-second reduction in page-load speed would improve download conversions by 2.7 percent," said Mozilla's Blake Cutler. "In reality, our optimized experimental variation shaved 2.2 seconds off the average page load time and increased download conversions by 15.4 percent!"

As the company expanded, Shopzilla's site had become slow. However, a year-long performance redesign yielded a five-second improvement in load times. Shopzilla revealed that this upgrade not only resulted in a 25 percent jump in page views, but it also had a significant effect on the bottom line, with a 7 percent to 12 percent increase in revenue and a 50 percent reduction in hardware.

And it's not just about the short-term conversion rate. Fast e-commerce Web sites actually increase brand loyalty. According to a 2009 study by Forrester Consulting, 52 percent of consumers cite quick load times as an important reason for visiting a site, and 79 percent are more likely to head elsewhere following a dissatisfying experience. Meanwhile, 47 percent of consumers expect a Web page to load within two seconds - and 40 percent will abandon a site after just three seconds.

Notice too that when ranking Web sites, Google now factors in Web site speed. But how many CMOs are obsessed enough with speed to measure the success of their digital platforms in half-seconds?

Human Beings and Speed
So why is speed so critical?

We know from years of testing data that people can feel the difference in response times down to the tenth of a second. Users consistently feel more satisfied and in control when response times are reduced. The fact that people have become accustomed to the various download speeds on the Internet doesn't mean they don't strongly prefer faster experiences. Think about how much more willing you've become to fire up the apps on your smartphone that run without extensive client-server interaction. Now compare that to the feeling of slogging through a large e-commerce site.

The Hyper-Efficient Generation
I recently sat in on a user test where a college student instinctively reached for her smartphone to check her email every time a Web page looked like it would take more than a second or two to load. Patiently waiting was not an option for her.

Even more than other users, young people have an acute sense of whether a Web site is likely to waste their time. The younger generations of users have grown up in a faster digital world: bandwidth is higher, sites are generally faster, multitasking is second nature. People have been spoiled by Google.

But notice that this is not a new issue. According to leading web usability expert guru Jakob Nielsen, "Studies done at IBM in the 1970s and 1980s found that mainframe users were more productive when the time between hitting a function key and getting the requested screen was less than a second."

The Culture of Speed
Of course, many organizations already have standards in place for the size and load times of pages. The problem is that speed tends to be the invisible issue -- at least until the design actually launches and you can feel how critical it is, but by then it's usually too late to fix.

That's why teams and cultures that have managed to elevate and fix a complex issue such as speed are also likely to be the teams that build successful user experiences. They've shown the smarts and persistence to focus on what matters and to make things work - keeping a lot of users happy in the process.

Gene Liebel is a partner and the director of research and user experience at Huge.

 Life in the Fast Lane

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