Having a quality user experience can be critical to the success of a business. But many marketers often underestimate the role that website performance plays in the user experience.

Nowhere is this truer than on mobile, where a slow-loading or poor-performing webpage can lose a user’s attention and interest within seconds. 

Unlike desktop websites, mobile websites are typically accessed on the go, and in situations where people don’t have a lot of time or inclination to sit around waiting for a website to load.

Recent research carried out by performance marketing agency iProspect has revealed just what this poor performance UX (the user experience of a site from a performance perspective) is costing brands in terms of traffic.

iProspect created a comprehensive ‘Performance UX Index’ which analyses 401 websites from 307 brands across 14 verticals, in a bid to establish how performance UX impacts a brand’s traffic, conversions and revenue.

The index yielded some notable insights into which brands and industries fare the best on mobile, and why. Most of all, it found that a great many websites are still offering a poor mobile experience going into July, when Google’s mobile algorithm update, which uses page speed as a ranking factor, will take effect.

I spoke to Sophie Wooller, Director of Data and Technology Products at iProspect, about the methodology behind iProspect’s performance research, the cost of poor performance UX for certain sectors, and what brands can do to turn their performance around ahead of Google’s algorithm update.

The performance UX winners and losers

When assessing websites’ performance on mobile, iProspect’s data science team used three broad variables – speed, performance and accessibility – to generate a metric known as their Index Score.

This score was then averaged for each brand and industry to produce a ranking. Of the 14 industries assessed in the research, the hospitality industry came out on top with an Index Score of 50.16 (compared to a cross-industry average of 42.71). Second was healthcare, with a score of 48.53, while finance/banking took the third spot with a score of 47.39.

The telecommunications industry ranked bottom of the list with an Index Score of 34.02, while the travel industry also performed poorly, with an Index Score of 36.9.

The top-ranking brands in the Index, however, didn’t all belong to these industries. Of the ten top-scoring brands, tech brands performed well, with Google, Bing and Microsoft all stealing spots in the top ten – yet the tech sector ranked 7th out of the 14 industries assessed in the research.

The second-highest scoring brand overall, Suzuki, was from the automotive industry – an industry which ranked fourth from bottom overall. And only one hospitality brand, Pizza Hut, was represented in the top ten list of brands, despite the sector performing well as a whole.

I asked Sophie Wooller about the thinking behind the metrics that iProspect used to assess performance UX. Why were these three areas considered most important?

“We pulled together a number of metrics to try and get a really blended number,” said Wooller. “We broke those down into three broad buckets. One is speed, which covers not just page speed but also absolute load time – a slow-loading website on mobile can feel really excruciating to the user, which has a big impact on user experience and the impression of a brand.

“The second bucket is performance – things like time to first paint, which is the first time that you start to feel like something is happening with the webpage – but also first interaction, the time at which you can actually interact with the page. When waiting for a webpage to load, a lot of the perception of performance comes from whether users can see that something is happening, even if the whole thing hasn’t loaded yet.

“The third bucket is accessibility, which covers how easy a website is to access for people who have visual impairments and other access needs; and also whether or not the site is Progressive Web App-ready.

“Thinking about the future of the internet, we need sites to be able to load as quickly and seamlessly as possible. We included the PWA score, which comes from Google’s Lighthouse tool, as a good indicator of how brands are approaching mobile and developing a performance UX mindset.

“We chose these metrics as indicators of performance UX because they give a really balanced scorecard,” Wooller went on.

“We did weight the speed element a little higher than other metrics, because it’s one of the key factors for Google rankings, but also because from a people perspective, speed is so important. When you get past the three-second load time mark, with every extra second that your website takes, you’re losing people.”

The trouble with travel

Travel brands, iProspect’s research found, had some of the poorest track records when it came to performance UX, with the travel industry as a whole ranking second from bottom out of 14 industries for speed, accessibility and performance.

Based on the performance UX for the 15 travel brands that iProspect assessed, with average category order value and site traffic, the research team calculated that the travel industry is losing out on an estimated £900 million a year in potential revenue due to poor mobile performance.

I asked Wooller why travel websites in particular tend to perform so poorly.

“Websites in the travel industry tend to be very creative-heavy; they often have big, beautiful, rich imagery in order to tempt consumers to spend a week of their hard-earned holiday on a beach, or in an exotic location. The “shop window” for travel is that beautiful creative.

“As a result, we found that travel websites are being held back by load time and page size. There needs to be a balance between that beautiful imagery and the user experience; it’s no good having a fantastic shop window if no-one can see it because it takes too long to load.”

Travel websites tend to rely on rich, detailed (and often slow-loading) imagery to inspire visitors to purchase

“On top of this, travel websites are often trying to do a huge number of different things. They want to inspire people to book a holiday – and the rich, eye-catching imagery is so important to that. There’s also a heavy functional element to travel websites: they offer flights, they offer hotels, and there are so many options now for the consumer that brands need to absolutely nail the booking element.

“Whereas if you look at some of our top performers in the Index, there are a number of very “light” websites – like Google, for example. Their landing page is very functional and light on content. It’s absolutely used for selling the purpose of what you need from that brand.”

What could, or should, travel websites be doing in order to turn this situation around?

“There are some small but really impactful changes that brands can make,” said Wooller. “First of all, they shouldn’t be afraid to learn from the competition – see what else is going on, and what’s working well.

“They can also focus more on the perception of speed rather than on absolute speed, because as I mentioned, that has a big impact on users’ impression of website performance. This involves thinking about which elements you can load quickly, rather than loading everything in a big bang. It gives consumers confidence that something is happening, rather than being presented with a blank screen.

“Finally, work with the development team. Think of ways to streamline the site, and focus the customer journey – improving performance doesn’t have to involve a big, scary website overhaul if you make small changes in the right places.”

Wooller pointed to the hospitality sector as one that travel brands could stand to pick up some tricks from.

“The top-performing category in our research was hospitality, and I think we’ve got quite a lot to learn from them. Hospitality websites do have imagery – if you’re ordering a meal, you want to see what it is that you’re ordering – but they’ve also got quite a functional service in terms of price and location. They’ve nailed that balance of inspiration and function.

“With that said, most hospitality brands have the advantage of slightly different customer requirements: if you’re hungry, you will go and order the thing that you want to eat, whereas travel is targeting consumers at more of an upper-funnel stage in the journey.”

How to get on top of mobile performance and UX

In its official announcement about the Speed Update (the name given to Google’s upcoming mobile algorithm update), Google made it known that the change was about more than just page load time: it was about user experience.

“The “Speed Update,” as we’re calling it, will only affect pages that deliver the slowest experience to users and will only affect a small percentage of queries,” Google wrote. “We encourage developers to think broadly about how performance affects a user’s experience of their page and to consider a variety of user experience metrics.”

With that in mind, I asked Wooller what brands can do to get on top of their mobile performance as the Speed Update comes into effect in July.

“Start now, and think about experience rather than absolute speed,” Wooller said. “If you can lay that groundwork early for thinking beyond a simple metric [page speed] towards a broader metric [user experience], then you’ll be setting yourself up for success.

“On a practical note: do an audit of your site. See where you are; see how you’re ranking. There are probably a lot of tactical wins you can get over the line, that will give you the assurance you that you’re approaching the algorithm change without a hidden disaster lurking somewhere on your site.

“If you take those kinds of steps now, then when the next big change comes, you’ll be ahead of the curve.”

For brands who want to assess their mobile performance UX and pinpoint areas where they can improve, iProspect has created a tool that allows anyone to search the more than 300 brands assessed for the UX Performance Index and find out their Index Score, as well as how they performed in terms of speed, accessibility, performance and PWA-readiness.

A final word of advice from Wooller: bring every team together across your business to work towards the goal of improving performance.

“I can’t emphasise enough how important collaboration is. Make sure you are collaborating with your developers, with your agency or your in-house team; talk to the experts who can make your site streamlined and quick and beautiful. Make the ‘front door’ for your consumers an experience rather than just functional.

“If you can bring your technical teams, your product teams and your marketing teams together, you will deliver a fantastic experience for your consumers.”

Econsultancy subscribers can download our User Experience and Interaction Design for Mobile and Web Best Practice Guide.

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