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Delivering Strong User Experiences in This Increasingly Digital World

This article was originally published as a byline for CMS Wire.

Given the increasing reliance on digital systems to accomplish many everyday tasks, there’s no denying the performance — specifically, speed, and reliability — of these systems is critical to ensuring end users will have a positive experience.

At the forefront are industry giants like Google and Facebook, which are constantly pushing the limits of speed through innovative delivery techniques.

While consumers welcome endeavors like Google’s Accelerated Mobile Pages (AMP) Project and Facebook’s Instant Articles, they also raise the bar for all internet companies.

In this environment, companies that fail to meet users’ tough performance expectations will soon find themselves falling behind the competition — not just in terms of performance, but revenue as well.

According to a recent Harris poll survey my company sponsored, 76 percent of respondents said they avoid shopping at poorly performing sites and apps after just one poor experience.

This negative reaction extends beyond just ecommerce: half of frequent online shoppers are also less likely to visit a retailer’s brick-and-mortar store if they have a negative experience shopping online.

The Double-Edge Sword of Third Party Services

To keep up with expectations, companies are relying on third-party services such as cloud providers, content delivery networks and tags (such as marketing analytics and social media plug-ins) to help them optimize their delivery and the user experience.

However, these external services are a double-edged sword as they add to the complexity of digital systems. The result: when something outside of one’s direct control breaks, identifying and isolating the problem requires the ability to sift through the many layers of site architecture to get to the root cause.

According to a recent survey from Enterprise Management Associates (EMA), an IT and data management research and consulting firm, 77 percent of IT professionals cite lack of insight into the performance of the cloud and other third-party services as a major obstacle to identifying and troubleshooting root causes of problems

As digital architecture gets more complex, that inability to assess exactly what is happening in those third-party services and systems will only get worse.

The Right Digital Experience Monitoring Strategy

So where does all this leave you? You don’t want to avoid using third-party services, because they can provide a valuable advantage as you scale your business to reach new consumers, as well as add features to your website.

What then is the key to delivering the best possible online customer experience without shooting yourself in the foot?

The most important aspect of a digital experience monitoring strategy is to keep track and verify the performance of every aspect of your digital service delivery, be it your own first-party infrastructure and software, or a third-party service.

This ability to segment first- and third-party elements on the page will be invaluable when it comes to the all-important processes of diagnosing and troubleshooting performance issues. Obtaining that bird’s-eye view into your own performance, as well as that of external third-party services, will not only allow you to solve problems faster, but hold third-parties accountable as far as SLA compliance is concerned.

2016 Black Friday/Cyber Monday Performance

The challenges that third-party services can present  (most notably tags) were apparent during the most recent Black Friday/Cyber Monday long holiday weekend.

Even though the overall performance of ecommerce companies was the best it’s been in years, several major retailers suffered as a direct result of third-party performance degradations.  The reality is that most third-party tags are not designed to handle massive traffic loads.

Williams-Sonoma had ongoing performance issues because of problems with Photorank, a customer photo display service that integrates within a retailer’s website and is designed to help drive conversions. Both the retailer’s desktop and mobile sites had load time spikes around 25 seconds — unacceptably slow.

Elsewhere, Walmart experienced several issues throughout the long weekend, including spotty desktop web performance starting in Phoenix then extending to New York City and Denver as the weekend progressed, all resulting directly from an issue with a Rubicon Project tag.

The desktop sites of Lenovo, QVC and Newegg also experienced issues directly attributable to third-party tags on Cyber Monday, with Lenovo’s webpage load time spiking to more than 18 seconds in the middle of the day.

How to Protect Your Website

If you want to use third-party tags, your first line of defense needs to be a thorough vetting of any third-party service before you put them into place.

You wouldn’t hire a stranger to house sit for you while you’re away, so why would allow just anyone onto your digital properties?

Less is often more when it comes to third-party tags, and you should not only be asking yourself if a particular service is capable of providing the top-notch service you require, but also whether that service is even necessary. This vigilance becomes even more important during peak traffic periods, when the risk of misbehaving third-party tags multiplies.

Monitor Cloud Service Providers, CDNs

In addition to monitoring third-party tags, it is critical to monitor cloud service providers and content delivery networks (CDNs) as well. Clouds can provide instant scalability, while CDNs provide a valuable bridge to help you cut down content delivery latencies, improving the user experience for geographically dispersed users.

But remember, peak periods for you are likely peak periods for these external infrastructures as well, and they must be monitored constantly to ensure that they are performing up to par and protecting your users’ experience, and ultimately your brand.

With ecommerce maturing, there are fewer and fewer excuses for poor performance during both peak and non-peak traffic periods. Certainly, catastrophic failures like a massive power outage are always a possibility. However, even as the internet increases in complexity, most problems are still within your zone of control. Deriving actionable intelligence amidst a sea of growing IT complexity is the key.