Five performance boosters for the financial sector

Effective web services can mean the difference between profit and peril in the financial sector and here are some ways how financial services firms can run their online operations at peak performance.

In financial services, good web performance in terms of the speed, reliability and consistency of the end-user online experience is paramount. When a financial services firm's website performs poorly, the bottom-line impact can be felt in various ways including customers selecting a more costly support channel.

At the same time, as smartphones explode in popularity, end-users' performance expectations for mobile sites are also skyrocketing. Financial services firms must deliver a consistently excellent online experience to their customers regardless of whether they are accessing websites on a computer or a mobile device. Stronger mobile site performance will be a key to increasing adoption of the mobile web in financial services and capitalising on its vast potential for strengthening customer relationships.

 So what can a financial services firm do to make sure its website and mobile site perform consistently well?

Understanding performance

First and foremost, is the need to understand performance as end users experience it - from their direct perspective, at the browser/device level.

Many organisations still look at application delivery as no more than what's going on inside the data centre. If one examines the infrastructure of all servers using traditional systems management and monitoring, and these tools say everything is working and the local network is running fine, the conclusion may be that end users are satisfied. But unless your customers live in your data centre you can't make this assumption, because there are so many performance-impacting variables beyond your firewall - including content delivery networks (CDNs), cloud service providers, third-party services adding features and functionality, regional ISPs, local ISPs, browsers and devices. This concept is known as the application delivery chain.

 Prioritising end users, including mobile users.

Consider, for example, where most of your consumers are geographically. You can then strategically select and invest in content delivery networks (CDNs)  that will provide the greatest performance for areas of concentrated users. Knowing where the majority of your customers are will also help you prioritise the browser(s) you need to optimise your website for. 

You can arrange for site elements to load in a specific order on the most popular browser, so as to enhance perceived load time. This ensures immediately visible, "above the fold: site elements load first, giving the impression of a full site download versus raw load time - the time it actually takes for all site elements to load, including those further down the page that aren't immediately visible.

Similarly, when it comes to mobile, the sheer volume of browser/device combinations in use today makes it nearly impossible to measure and monitor end-user performance across all of them, so focus on the ones that are most prevalent among your customers. New tools can help you quickly gauge if your website works properly across the most commonly used devices. 

There are also services available that can detect site traffic by mobile browser and device type and download content selectively in accordance with a particular device's capabilities, helping to maintain speed and deliver the best possible end-user experience.

 Load test early and often

When financial markets plunged during the Flash Crash of May 6, 2010, website response time for the leading online brokerage firms went in the opposite direction, spiking to 30 seconds or more. The problem was that these websites simply weren't prepared to handle the weight of unanticipated online demand. The lesson: financial services firms need to plan for unexpected, unpredictable surges in online traffic.

 Proper load testing is key, and it can be helpful to combine load generated from the cloud with real-world load generated from end-users' browsers and mobile devices. By combining the two, you can load test up to millions of page views per hour and achieve great accuracy in understanding how various end-user segments are experiencing a website or application under different load sizes. When a performance degradation is detected for a particular end-user segment, you can then trace back across the entire application delivery chain - from end-users' browsers all the way back to your data centre- to identify and address the element(s) that aren't carrying their weight.

Set and monitor third-party service level agreements (SLAs).

Today's websites and applications are increasingly composite, comprising features and functionalities delivered by third-party services like financial market data feeds. Just one poorly performing service can cause an entire website, application or mobile site to slow down, and your end users will blame you even if the source of the problem doesn't reside under your direct control in the data center. This poses potential harm to your customer loyalty and brand, and underscores why it's critical to monitor end-to-end application performance from the end-user's perspective, to proactively identify and address any "weak links."

In addition, as financial services firms rely increasingly on external cloud services, it's not enough for a cloud service provider to offer a generic guarantee like "99 per cent uptime." So what if their servers are all up and running? What you need to know is how your website, mobile site and applications are performing, and you need specific performance guarantees in your SLA.

Once again, understanding how your end users are experiencing your website or application on the "other side" of the cloud is the key to validating the SLA and making sure you're getting what you're paying for.

 Leverage industry benchmarks. You should also refer to industry benchmarks which showcase how financial services industry leaders are performing on the traditional PC web as well as the mobile web. These leaders are defining "good" experiences and setting end-user expectations, which can help determine how strong your own website, application and mobile site performance needs to be, while providing a context for ongoing performance optimisation efforts.

Provide actionable information to the business.

 With so many performance-impacting variables to monitor, you must have a consolidated, all-encompassing view that pinpoints the root causes of performance issues for your most important end-user segments and web pages. Analytics can also help you correlate web performance to desirable or undesirable outcomes - i.e. the rate of abandonment along each step of an online account checking process - and estimate the number of end users having a satisfying, mediocre or frustrating experience. This can help web teams prioritise problem-solving efforts.

Why performance matters?

In summary, how much does a financial services firm's web performance matter? A lot. Understanding the true end-user experience is at the heart of a proactive strategy that identifies and addresses a full slate of performance bottlenecks before they become noticeable to the outside world. This helps to ensure highly satisfying, engaging web and mobile site experiences that can enhance your customer loyalty, brand and market reputation, while optimising the impact and value of your overall web presence.

Rafi Katanasho is the application performance management (APM) director for Asia Pacific at Compuware 

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