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The 'touchability' factor: Why mobile performance should be priority No. 1

This blog post is part of our Essential Guide: A CIO's essential guide to mobile business strategy

Should a blade of grass move when we nudge it? If it doesn’t, should we assume we’re dreaming? Or in some alternate reality? “I would think I might be in The Matrix,” said Michael Facemire in a recent webinar presentation on the importance of mobile performance.

Mike Facemire

Michael Facemire

Facemire, principal analyst for application development and delivery professionals at Forrester Research Inc., believes mobile devices, by virtue of their touchability, have fundamentally changed customer expectations about technology performance. Just as when we touch a blade of grass we expect something to happen immediately, so too with apps and websites accessed through mobile devices. If these digital artifacts don’t respond immediately, we flee. Facemire cited stats from Google and others showing a majority of smartphone users will abandon a “touch activity” after just 2 seconds of inaction.

In a marketplace where transactions are increasingly digital and executed via smartphone, Facemire argues that building high-performance mobile experiences (the title of his Akamai Technologies-sponsored webinar) is paramount to keeping customers and promoting brand loyalty.

The problem is that many companies — and IT organizations, in particular — have not adapted their software development processes to this new reality, said Facemire, a developer and computer scientist by training.

Mobile performance low on developer totem pole

“Speaking on behalf of a lot of developers, when it comes to performance, this is generally not the first thing we think of when presented with a problem,” he said. The challenges that keep development teams up at night are figuring out how to build the software, what components and tools are needed, and what the user interface (UI) should look like, he said.

“Performance is one of those things that you just check a day or two before you ship code.” Indeed, in the traditional waterfall development method, performance review was one of the last stages, he recalled, “right up there with making sure that the legal paperwork had been signed.”
Yet, as Google’s and other companies’ data show, “performance is as important as, if not more important than, the user interface” in ensuring a great user experience, he said.

So what do IT organizations need to do to ensure high-quality mobile performance?

High-performance mobile experiences: ‘Full-stack game’

The first step is to stop making the UI the scapegoat for low-quality mobile experiences, Facemire said. Performance is a “full-stack game,” with the delivery layer, API layer and network connections all playing a part, he said. Content being delivered from a back-end content management system to the front end has to be transformed so that it fits appropriately on the device screen. The API layer has to do its bit: During peak mobile access times — Black Friday for retailers, end-of-quarter for travel and expense companies are two instances — it’s essential that database administrators are not in the middle of some task (for example, indexing the database) that will compromise users’ access to the data they want (a retailer’s product list, an employee’s expense account). Network performance is context-dependent: A 4G connection for customers at a football stadium with 59,000 fans can’t be counted on for high-quality mobile performance. So, ideally, data should be cached as close as possible to the device. But, unlike caching for the Web, caching for mobile is “an area as an industry that we are still trying to figure out,” Facemire said.

Speed and performance

Adding to the problem of delivering high-quality mobile performance is the tremendous pressure developers are under to deliver new material. A development process that once upon a time took 12 to 18 months now happens in two to four months and is rapidly becoming a “zero-day event,” Facemire said.

The good news is that developers are catching up to demand. When Forrester recently asked enterprise developers how fast their teams released applications, nearly a third (32%) said they’re releasing applications monthly or faster. The bad news is that to meet that timetable, teams take shortcuts.

“Unfortunately, a lot of folks simply cut off the back-end part of it,” Facemire said. Only 23% of developers and professionals surveyed by Forrester said they incorporate performance or load testing tools in their software development lifecycle and 15% of them use these tools less than monthly. That’s asking for mobile performance issues – and customer dissatisfaction.

“Quality has to be a part of everything you do from Day 1 — not at the end,” Facemire said. “We need to have testing and we need to ensure our mobile experiences have the enterprise quality customers have come to expect — but to do it more quickly.”

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It's ridiculous how far underdeveloped mobile sites and apps are. It's been a decade now, that mobile devices and browsing have been a factor. There are many people for whom mobile browsing is their primary means of internetting.

Just last week, I submitted an inquiry to support for a major medical company, letting them know that their pages do not scroll in mobile browser. Their response? "We are reviewing this issue. In the meantime, please type the link in your desktop browser."

Mobile content development SHOULD go hand-in-hand with any web development these days - like peanut butter and jelly, pancakes and syrup, water and wet.

Of course, when I see how much content that still relies on Flash player plugin is still being produced, I am less than surprised at the lack of web development. :-/

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