The value of an independent web performance consultant

If you're wondering if you need an independent web performance consultant, this is why I think you do!

I have been employed in web performance roles for about a decade. From load testing and synthetic monitoring to CDN configuration and true consultancy. In 2022 I became an independent web performance consultant.

One thing has stood out from my experience working with hundreds of brands β€” from small national websites to massive multi-national ecommerce websites: folks generally understand web performance, why it matters and the core principles, but they struggle to keep on top of industry trends whilst maintaining a complex production codebase. Sometimes all it takes is a call that brings together marketing, product and development teams to talk it through; other situations call for a multi-year project to gradually introduce optimisations and measure change.

Coming in as a consultant allows me to be a catalyst for positive change, even if all of the performance issues had previously been documented! Dedicated, independent consultants (like me, or others in the industry) help to bring focus and passion to a topic that is often under-valued and under-invested. This quote from Rob Kerr on self-employment resonates with me:

I believe that, given the right preparation, self-employment can be empowering for the individual and can solve meaningful problems in the world. Many of these problems would never justify the investment at a corporate level, and nor could a big business deliver the solution to the same standard as the person who is passionate about making that difference.

Project Future by Rob Kerr

In most organisations it does not make sense to employ a full-time individual who is solely focussed on site speed. Some of the more successful organisations I've worked with have web performance working groups - a cross-functional team who have a few days per month to discuss and prioritise performance improvements. Even in these cases, having an external view on site speed adds incredible value: reviewing the KPIs that are being measured, prioritising backlogged tasks, improving tooling and even identifying new issues that have been undetected by the in-house teams.

Independent performance consultants add further value because of the work we do across multiple clients: working in different codebases on different platforms for different types of organisation. We absorb best practices from multiple teams and can help apply them to each of our clients. If nothing else, an experienced second set of eyes on a website will always find something to improve.

Speaking of improvements: measuring impact is one of the most difficult parts of web performance in general, and is a real challenge when it comes to consultancy. I would love to be able to attribute performance optimisations back to real business impact, but this is near impossible in a world of daily releases, multiple campaigns per week and the rollercoaster of SEO / SEM. We know from hundreds of case studies that improving performance improves user experience and business results, so most times we have to rely on that implicit understanding.

In an ideal world performance changes are A/A/B tested to determine the impact on business results, using a real-user monitoring (RUM) solution like Akamai mPulse or SpeedCurve to track performance + business metrics together. Even then, some performance improvements will impact metrics that are near-impossible to track: e.g. user satisfaction, return rates and likelihood to recommend. Improving performance will improve business metrics, it's just nearly impossible to measure the direct impact.

Katie Sylor-Miller recently made the same observation about the difficulties in attributing positive performance changes to business results:

Another difficult part of web performance is determining the impact of a technical change at a user experience level. Reducing time to first byte (TTFB) by 500ms will have a very clear benefit: every experience, every pageview, will become a half a second quicker. But most changes β€” like reducing CSS bundle size, optimising images or reducing JavaScript execution times β€” will not have such a linear relationship.

Improving page load time by 100ms under test conditions may not seem like a lot, but at the tail-end of your user distribution this could result in more than a second of improvement. Users in more remote geographies, on older phones, on poorer quality networks will always see a bigger improvement than users on a flagship phone connected to a 100+Mbps network. Implementing a RUM solution and providing deep analysis of the data can help to illuminate the users having the worst experiences and to identify the most important optimisations to focus on.

In summary: performance matters to user experience, even if it is difficult to prove. An independent performance consultant can help to bring teams together, to identify and prioritise performance enhancements and to measure their impact. As a bonus: onboarding a consultant is almost certainly quicker (and cheaper) than developing and maintaining in-house expertise to the same level - all while sharing knowledge internally and helping to build a performance culture.