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Mobile app performance: Optimizing the end-to-end experience

Maneesh Joshi Senior Director of Product Marketing and Strategy, AppDynamics

A big part of making any mobile app development a success is ensuring that you continuously optimize end-to-end performance. Mobile app performance improvement isn't always easy, but enterprises must rise quickly to the challenge or risk losing ground to competitors.

Leading thinkers in this space believe that mobile has passed the tipping point in its rise to dominate both our lives and the business world. According to Forrester Research, the scales tipped in 2014 when mobile "solidified its position as one of the most disruptive technologies for businesses in decades." Enterprises that accelerate their mobile spending this year will create an "insurmountable gap" between themselves and everyone else, the report concludes.

In her Internet Trends presentation for 2015, Mary Meeker of venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers (KPCB) reports that more than half of US online time is spent on smartphones. Additionally, 29 percent of video time is now viewed on smartphones. One of the most eye-opening stats is that 60 percent of millennials believe that in five years, everything will be done on mobile devices.

Users demand high performance

Many enterprises have approached mobile by extending their websites and embracing responsive design to ensure that their content is consumable on any screen size. If you're looking to attract visitors through search, a mobile website makes a lot of sense (although Google is currently adding limited capability to search within apps). But if you're a forward-looking business that wants to take advantage of all the capabilities that smartphones offer (geo-awareness, touchscreen, camera, gyroscope, and so on), and you want to deliver the most customized, personalized experience, you're likely to decide on an app.

The challenge is that the bar for user satisfaction with mobile apps is high and getting higher. An Evigo article summarizing a recent Yankee Group study states, "Consumers today demand applications that are constantly updated, personalized and unique to meet their needs." Mobile app performance is key. According the Akamai Technologies report Performance Matters: 9 Key Consumer Insights, nearly one in five consumers expect mobile pages to load instantly; 30 percent expect a page to load in one second or less; and 49 percent expect loading to occur in two seconds or less. No doubt consumers' performance expectations for mobile apps are similarly demanding.

If the app fails to deliver the right experience or fails to perform satisfactorily, it hurts the brand image, the user deletes the app, ratings tank, and potential sales and ad revenues disappear along with the user. In contrast, the benefits are compelling: users spend more than 80 percent of their time on just five apps in a given month, according to Forrester. The rewards of creating an engaging, high-performing app are great.

But the opportunity to meet these high user expectations keeps getting shorter—often now just fractions of a second. Forrester describes the trend toward "contextually relevant micro-moments, delivered across families of devices, that are personalized to anticipate unique customer needs." On the new Apple Watch, "glances" are one of the primary modes of interaction—the mobile opportunity can be as short as a blink of the eye. According to KPCB's Meeker, "Consumers' expectation that they can get what they want with ease and speed will continue to rise...This changes fundamental underpinnings of business..."

Enter mobile application performance monitoring

In this new world, users expect virtually instantaneous response times, inextricably tying mobile application success to performance. But how do you consistently deliver that rapid-fire response to users? And when an issue comes up, how do you fix it before it affects and potentially alienates large numbers of users? This is the realm of mobile application performance monitoring (APM).

Unlike traditional performance monitoring, which tends to focus on application metrics and machine data, mobile APM puts user experience front and center in the performance equation. We need to know how the app is responding to the user. Is it quick? Is it delivering relevant results? Is the user engaged?

Mobile teams tend to focus on front-end monitoring—how the application performs on the device—assessing whether the code executes properly, resources are managed efficiently, screens render accurately, user commands are registered, and so on. All this is important, but it's just the tip of the mobile monitoring iceberg. For every one thing at the device level that impacts performance, the are a dozen—maybe even one hundred—things that impact performance on the back end.

There are the processing and database calls that go on in your data center to make a purchase or to deliver a current account balance or product search results. There are all kinds of API calls to content servers, payment processors, mapping services, ad servers, and so much else that powers your app's responses. Across the long and circuitous path back and forth over network carriers to the smartphone or tablet, there are countless opportunities for the interaction to slow, stall, or fail.

Effective mobile monitoring requires total end-to-end, front-to-back visibility into everything that impacts the user's experience of the app—not just what happens on the device itself.

Opening the black box

For many mobile app developers and operations teams, though, what happens on the back end is a proverbial black box. Front-end-focused monitoring tools may not show them what's happening, or the mobile group may be a separate entity from the rest of the IT group. As such, the group lacks visibility into the processes that are affecting the apps. According to the latest Econsultancy and Adobe mobile survey, only 22% of companies have a centralized mobile team.

Fortunately, products have rapidly evolved to address these challenges, part of the overall transformation of APM to meet the needs of software-defined businesses for speed, agility, and responsiveness. It's now possible to see the details of the entire interaction path—from the instant the user touches the screen; to the device-resident code; out across the network; through the servers and databases, and back-end application code and API calls; and back across the network to the user's screen—all in real time and in highly granular detail.

To be sure, you need the front-end monitoring of the app itself, including load times, detailed crash reporting, and device statistics that shed light on who your app users are and how they are engaging with your app. Narrowly focused mobile app monitoring tools can help with this, but they don't go far enough. To fully understand where and why performance issues are occurring and to maintain performance levels that satisfy users, you need to implement an end-to-end monitoring solution.

"Enterprises will require comprehensive technology that can provide performance metrics for all the aggregated factors that can impact mobile application performance, including third-party APIs, carrier networks, and end-user devices," according to a report from 451 Research (subscription required). And the marketplace is responding with "new approaches and innovations for providing end-to-end monitoring and managing of the mobile end-user experience."

There's a lot riding on your mobile app. Make sure it succeeds by implementing an effective, end-to-end mobile monitoring solution. Ideally, this will go hand-in-hand with your overall monitoring strategy to encompass every channel in your users' journey. A user delighted at every touch point—web, smartphone, tablet, watch, Internet of Things—is a user who is loyal to your brand and disposed to spread the good word.

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