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What Is That Delay Costing?

As a side practice in our scalability and availability engagements we often work with companies on the performance of their SaaS offerings by attempting to speed up their web page load times. Citing a Google white paper, “Speed Matters for Google Web Search” by Jake Brutlag, we point to the fact that even tenths or hundredths of a second matter. Brutlag states that through experiments they have shown that increasing web search latency from 100 to 400 ms reduces the daily number of searches per user by upwards of 0.6%. Given that we are attempting to become practitioner-scholars, in order to bridge the gap between academia and practice, we decided to dive into this subject area a little deeper. Our goal was to understand what other research had been done and if there was anything more practitioners could learn besides “speed up your pages!”

Research in computer system delay has been taking place for decades and has shown that excessive computer system delay results in negative responses such as anxiety (Guynes, 1988) and satisfaction with the system itself (Rushinek & Rushinek, 1986). However, the research does not support the relationships between increases in delay and the attitude toward the company (Rose & Straub, 2001). It was shown that increases in delay treatments from near 0 to 15 seconds did not correlate with a reduction in satisfaction measures such as ease of use or content appeal (Otto et al., 2000). It was also found that increases in delay treatments did not consistently predict likelihood of future patronage (Rajala and Hantula, 2000).

So from all this research we have the notion that delays cause frustration, even anxiety, but yet they don’t appear to cause a decrease in satisfaction or even predict continued usage. Why is this?

Attribution theory, which deals with how individuals infer causality between events (Kelley and Michela, 1980), would explain this phenomenon as the customers assigning blame for the delay to something or someone other than the SaaS provider. This theory has also been used to show that the presence of a self-serving attribution bias and an actor–observer attribution bias in entrepreneurs’ representations of events (Rogoff et al. 2004) but we’ll save that for another post. It turns out that perceived wait time is much more critical than the actual wait time (Baker & Cameron, 1996).

Rose, et al. (2005) content that “it may be less important to reduce objective delay than it is to create a system where users will be less likely to attribute the delay to the retailer.” An example would be to give the user the option of selecting a low or high graphic site in order to provide the users with the control. Users will likely perceive this as an active effort on the part of the SaaS provider to minimize download time and thus attribute delays to themselves, their computer, their ISP, etc but not the site.


References:

Baker, J., & Cameron, M. (1996). “The effects of the service environment on affect and consumer perception of waiting time: An integrative review and research propositions.” Journal of the Academy of Marketing Science, 24, 338–349.

Guynes, J. L. (1988). “Impact of system response time on state anxiety.” Communications of the ACM, 31, 342–347.

Kelley, H. H. and J. L. Michela (1980). “Attribution theory and research.” Annual review of psychology 31(1): 457-501.

Otto, J. R., Najdawi, M. K., & Caron, K. M. (2000). “Web-user satisfaction: An exploratory study.” Journal of End User Computing, 12, 3–10.

Rajala, A. K., & Hantula, D. A. (2000). “Toward a behavioral ecology of consumption: Delay-reduction effects on foraging in a simulated internet mall.” Managerial and Decision Economics, 21, 145–158.

Rogoff, E., Lee, M., and Suh, D. 2004. ““Who Done It?’ Attributions by Entrepreneurs and Experts of the Factors That Cause and Impede Small Business Success,” Journal of Small Business Management (42:4), pp 364-376.

Rose, G.M., & Straub, D. (2001). “The effect of download time on consumer attitude toward the e-service retailer.” e-Service Journal, 1, 55–76.

Rose, G. M., M. L. Meuter, et al. (2005). “On line waiting: The role of download time and other important predictors on attitude toward e retailers.” Psychology and Marketing 22(2): 127-151.

Rushinek, A., & Rushinek, S. (1986). “What makes users happy?” Communications of the ACM, 29, 594–598.


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The Ethical Concerns of Operating in China

Google's recent issues with operations in China shines a light on an important question for all Western businesses: How do we protect our long term operating interests when confronted with state sponsored theft of intellectual property?

The recent consideration by Google on whether to pull up its tent stakes in China is no big surprise.  Simply perform an online search for china intellectual property and you will find news articles and blogs rich with stories of intellectual property theft.  Walk down the streets of Shanghai and you will see Chinese police browsing through collections of pirated DVDs for sale.   On one hand, the Chinese government is concerned about controlling information to the population through censorship, but on the other they encourage (at the very least through a lack of action) or engage in theft to transfer intellectual property to state or Chinese business hands.  Is there really any doubt that the attacks on Google’s mail was sponsored by the Chinese government?  The real question, I argue, is what are the responsibilities of a Western company operating in China?

As stewards of companies, our fiduciary obligations are to our shareholders and stakeholders of the company.  One argument obviously is that Google has the obligation to maximize shareholder wealth and in order to do that they need to operate within China for maximum possible advertising revenue.  But operation in China carries certain operational risk as seen by the recent breach of corporate infrastructure and resulting theft of mail associated with Chinese “activists”.  This calls into question a company’s obligation to protect the interests of the data and information that makes the company money.  Theft of intellectual property can easily reduce a company’s competitive advantage relative to its competitors not just in China, but worldwide.  What if software or other products had been stolen?  What is the risk/reward of operation in the light of potential state sponsored theft versus the revenue and profit upside of those operations?

It is difficult for companies to take on governments, especially when those companies have little recourse within the country given their foreign status.  It is more difficult when the country in question takes, sponsors or allows actions against those foreign entities for the purposes of technology or information transfer.  Given the degree to which the deck is stacked against Google, and other Western companies, why would one subject themselves to the risk and potential loss?  The obvious answer as discussed above is growth and profit.  But the question remains – can a Western company truly be successful long term in China?  Will the Chinese government ever crack down on intellectual property theft and anti-competitive behaviors (rather than sponsoring them)?

Unfortunately today it appears that the Chinese government allows foreign competitors into the country in order to more quickly transfer intellectual property through state protected theft.


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Foster Creativity

With the economic downturn in full force, you are probably spending a great deal of time thinking about how to cut cost, reprioritize revenue generating features, or delivering more in 2009 with less resources.  You might think now is not the time to care about “creativity” and “energy” but we think this it is even more important.  Having a team that is fully engaged with all of their creative forces focused on your business is crucial to achieve any of those other objectives.  The way to achieve this is by creating an environment where people know where they stand in terms of performance, get to own deliverables, can openly question decisions or standards, and show each other respect.  

 

A couple ideas that we have either read about or seen in practice in organizations are team or individual training events, four day work weeks, allocated time to work on personal interests, self selection of features/stories, and mentoring.  Training can take the shape of many different forms including formal classes at universities, external workshops (WARNING: self-promotional plug….such as our Technology Workshop), or internal classes taught to each other by members of the team.  Everyone knows different things, sharing this knowledge is good for both the team as well as the presenter, giving her practice explaining technical items verbally  and ensuring she knows the subject completely.  

Mentoring is another low cost method of helping foster a more open and creative environment.  Pairing junior and senior engineers together provides both parties the opportunity to practice different skills.  Additionally, it helps facilitate what are likely two different groups to begin a dialog.  Mentoring can be extended in many different forms.  Ask the CEO to take a different engineer as a mentee each quarter, meeting with them for lunch or breakfast every second or third week for the quarter.  This is a great way to remind the top executive to appreciate the engineers and gets engineers exposure to the business challenges that the CEO faces daily, a real win-win proposition.

Some of the more radical approaches for developing a creative environment are already well documented by some very popular companies including Google and 37Signals.  If you haven’t read the 37Signals book, we recommend this as a great source of ideas for fostering a creative and unique environment for your team.


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