Branding is one of the most critical, and intangible, aspects of your business. No matter how much effort you put into creating a brand that customers want to associate with, it can all go to waste if the experience you create online is inconsistent with your branding.
However, having brand consistency is not just about graphics, logos, and a streamlined web interface. Often the experience is dictated by things seemingly beyond your control: for example, how quickly pages load, how fast transactions can be completed, and how often your site is up. The speed at which your customers can find and process information on your site is often the primary driver of how they feel about using your site—which often translates into how they feel about your brand.
Imagine planning for a big promotion that drives customers to call your company for more information. Clearly, you would plan for additional staff to field phone calls and ensure no one is forced to hold the line for an unacceptable amount of time. When planning for an online promotion, planning for speed is even more crucial, since a customer’s willingness to wait is limited and your competitor is just a click away. How do you ensure that your web site is optimized to deliver an enjoyable customer experience that is consistent with your brand image?
The Benefits of External Load Testing
Load testing is like having a “fire drill” prior to a promotion. High volumes of web transactions are simulated in short periods of time to ensure your site (and your staff) has the capacity and performance to exceed expectations, and that your customers don’t get frustrated and click away to your competitor instead of waiting on hold.
That said, not all load testing is the same. Traditional load testing is internal, meaning tests are run from behind your company’s firewall. Internal testing only allows you to see potential issues from within your own controlled environment, and does not test for the countless different scenarios in which a customer could be accessing your site. Further, it does not take into account different locations, various connection speeds or real-user experience.
Global load testing is the only solution for truly understanding and optimizing the customer experience. Global load testing provides an independent, third-party view of your site and uncovers information that isn’t always available from an internal test. As the number of broadband connections increases across the globe, customer expectations for speed also increase. The faster your site, the more customers can access it, and the more your brand is exposed to potential customers. Of course, the opposite is also true: slow sites move less customers through and result in less exposure. Speed has never been as important as it is in today’s global Internet-driven economy.
In addition, more sites are incorporating complex transactions and connections to other applications outside of their firewall, making the web a truly mission-critical application.
In this scenario, old rules of internal networking no longer apply – and load testing becomes even more crucial. Without Global load testing, it’s nearly impossible to understand and solve all the potential technical problems that could keep your site from performing at its best during peak periods in different locations around the world.
Ensuring a Positive Customer Experience
Competition is increasing every day – along with customer expectations for fast, error-free performance. No matter how superior your product, a customer’s experience using your website will largely dictate whether or not they use your site again. If your site is difficult to access or transaction speeds are too slow, many customers will give up and find a faster competitor offering similar products.
An experienced load testing partner can help you improve customer experience by analyzing the various ways in which customers use your site – where they click, which paths are most often taken, and how long customers normally pause (also called “wait time”) between clicks. After these scenarios are developed, they can be tested with different numbers of users to provide greater insight into the following:
- Customer Experience
- Regional Variances
- Overall Site Performance
External load testing is the only way to gain real insight into customer experience, particularly in preparation for large numbers of users. Internal testing analyzes only your web application, but does not test the network and overall infrastructure that your customers could be using to access your site. Without this external viewpoint, you have no way of knowing how long your customers wait for pages to load and transactions to complete. Your application could be working fine, but other issues could be causing problems for customers without your knowledge, such as:
- Server errors (web server, application server, database server)
- Load balancing issues
- Bandwidth issues
- Server capacity issues
- Cache server issues
- Router/firewall issues
Understanding and pinpointing potential infrastructure problems is just one piece of the puzzle to improving customer experience. Once you know that customer experience is generally acceptable at normal levels of load, the next step is gaining an understanding of how many users your site can handle at various speeds. The key is in knowing the point at which slow speed leads to customer abandonment. External load testing should outline the following metrics:
- Number of users your site is capable of serving at excellent speeds
- Number of users your site is capable of handling at good speeds
- Number of users that begin to slow your site to unacceptable levels of performance
This way, you can create the equivalent of a “staffing” plan to ensure your site is capable of handling your anticipated levels of users at good to excellent speeds, protecting you from customer.
In addition to the number of users your site can support, external load testing can quantify the customer experience in terms of wait time and error rate. The average customer will not wait longer than 2.5 seconds for a web page to load—a number which decreases with more competition.
Load testing can provide insight into the length of time it takes for each page to load for different numbers of users, giving you the breaking point at which user experience begins to degrade.
The more you understand about your customer’s experience, the better you can manage it and ensure it represents your brand well and creates a leadership position for your company.
Identifying Regional Difficulties
For companies that sell across many regions, it’s imperative to understand how your site is viewed in different locations – particularly those still using dial-up connections. External load testing can help identify regional problems caused by slow networks and provide ideas for how to optimize your site for users in these areas. Often, simple changes can make a huge impact on revenues and improve regional success.
Preparing for Holidays and Peak Periods
The holiday season is coming. You’ve added staff. You’ve scheduled enough cashiers, sales people and greeters throughout the season to ensure check-out lines are kept short and customers are being helped thoroughly and efficiently. You have additional staff on-call, ready to start work if lines get too long. Most importantly, you’ll be there to watch the traffic and quickly react if more help is needed. As the holiday sale approaches, you know your store is prepared to handle triple the number of customers and take in massive amounts of revenue.
Have you made the same preparations for your online store? Do you have the extra “staff” necessary, in terms of bandwidth and transaction speed? While the thought of long lines of customers may sound appealing, any smart retailer knows that making customers wait is not a good idea. It’s even worse online, when customer willingness to wait decreases dramatically and your competitor is just a click away.
External load testing helps you ensure your website is prepared for your big sale, promotion or holiday in the same way that you prepare for in-store sales. The key is to plan ahead. Load testing is an iterative process that requires testing, analysis, adjustments, and re-testing until the desired objective is achieved. Leaving enough time to get this process accomplished before the peak period hits is crucial.
Preparing for Site Redesigns
Sometimes redesigns intended to improve the look and feel of your site actually have a negative impact due to slowing down the site. Large images, Flash and other visually pleasing graphics often backfire—causing customers to either wait too long or only see part of your site. External load testing breaks down each transaction step and outlines load times and errors by page, allowing you to understand exactly where errors and slowdowns occur so you can quickly make adjustments.
You’ve Identified All the Issues: Now What?
Load testing is an iterative, consultative process. In the beginning, it’s all about identifying potential issues and noting errors. Once challenges are identified, a consultative process begins to solve each challenge and re-test until performance objectives are met. A comprehensive load testing engagement should provide a clear view of performance before and after testing.
The above graphs demonstrate how successive test iterations resulted in removing all errors and provided a linear scale to the increase in user load.
Plan Ahead for Optimum Results
Next time you run a promotion or update your site design be sure you have also prepared for the best possible customer experience. External load testing can help you determine:
- Router/firewall issues
- Your system’s end-user performance at different levels of users
- Your system’s breaking point
- Bottlenecks and design faults that may hinder your performance
- Needed changes or improvements to increase performance
- Your hardware/software capabilities
- How you compare to competitors with similar applications and infrastructure