Saturday, June 21, 2008

Measuring User Experience Performance

Measuring user performance ...

"One of the projects my team at Netflix is busy with is improving the end-user performance experience. Anyone that reads my blog regularly knows that I am a champion for great user experiences. Often the performance angle is not included in discussions of the user experience. But as we all know the best design can be crippled by sluggish execution, waiting a long time for a page to be fully interactive or feedback that does not come in a timely manner.

Timing "from Click to Done" - Full Cycle Experience
User performance experience focuses on what is the full cycle time from when the user requests a page or invokes an action till a new page is ready for interaction or the action has completed. Most sites have various ways of tracing parts of the performance puzzle. Often backend instrumentation is inserted to time backend services. But a lot of sites don't have a complete picture of just how much time is the user spending from the time they click it till the time they get it back (done).

To address this issue at Netflix, one of the first things I initiated after joining Netflix was the creation of full cycle tracers. Kim Trott (on my team) took the idea, ran with it, fleshed it out and turned it into reality.

The idea of tracing the full cycle time is to:

* Capture the start time
* Capture various points of interest
* Capture the end time
* Log the results

Capture the Start Time ("from Click")
To get a full cycle time we need to capture the point in time the user makes a request.

At Neflix we use the following stack of technologies: Java, JSP, Struts2, Tiles2, HTML, CSS and Javascript. Within the normal HTTP request/response cycle our requests are handled via Java servlets (eventually routing through to JSP for Web pages).

Unload Event
The most logical place to measure the start of a request ("from Click") is on the originating page (see A in figure above). The straighforward approach is to add a timing capture to the unload event (or onbeforeunload). More than one technique exist for persisting this measurement, but the most common way is to write the timing information (like URL, user agent, start time, etc.) to a cookie.

However, there is a downside to this methodology. If the user navigates to your home page from elsewhere (e.g., from a google search), then there will be no "start time" captured since the unload event never happened on your site. So we need a more consistent "start time".

Start of Servlet Response
We address this by providing an alternate start time. We instrument a time capture at the very earliest point in the servlet that handles the request at the beginning of the response (see B in figure above). This guarantees that we will have always have a start time. While it does miss the time it takes to handle the request, it ends up capturing the important part of the round trip time -- from response generation outward.

There are a number of ways to save this information so that it can be passed along through the response cycle to finally be logged. You can write out a server-side cookie. You can generate JSON objects that get embedded in the page. You could even pass along parameters in the URL (though this would not be desirable for a number of reasons). The point is you will need a way to persist the data until it gets out to the generated page for logging.

Note that the absolute time captured here is in server clock time and not client clock time. There is no guarantee these values will be in sync. We will discuss how we handle this later."    (Continued via Looks Good Works Well)    [Usability Resources]

Start Time - Usability, User Interface Design

Start Time

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