Alex Painter - 22 March 2019
When people are angry, they have always taken to the streets to protest.
They still do.
But the internet offers an alternative forum in which to voice strong opinions. So what happens when that forum is cut off?
The UK Parliament’s petitions website crashed yesterday, following a surge in support for a petition calling on the UK Government to revoke Article 50 and cancel its planned departure from the European Union.
It’s a cautionary tale on a number of fronts.
On a technical level, it highlights the need for performance testing: testing a website to understand how it behaves under load. How much traffic will cause an unacceptable slowdown? Website speed is an often-overlooked factor in customer experience optimization. And how much traffic will break the site altogether?
Then it’s a matter of balancing risks and costs. How likely is it that the site will reach breaking point? What are the consequences if it does? And is it worth investing in extra capacity or having the option to scale up as and when it becomes necessary? If traffic does exceed what the site can cope with, it may even be worth investing in the kind of queuing solution that retailers sometimes resort to on Black Friday.
It’s at this point that the technical spills over into the political. Because this isn’t Black Friday. And these aren’t purely technical questions. They affect people’s ability to make their voice heard. If access to the service is denied at this of all times, it may spark a backlash or fuel conspiracy theories that the establishment is somehow trying to quell debate. Suddenly, managing user experiences is inextricably linked with managing the political climate. Even the way the downtime is handled—whether it’s a standard 500 error page, a maintenance page, or a queuing solution—could have a serious impact on public sentiment. At the same time, the publicity around the outage could have the effect of rallying people to the cause espoused by this particular petition. We should also spare a thought for other petitions that might have failed to secure enough support for a Parliamentary debate because of this outage.
It’s impossible to say whether this particular issue was foreseeable. Certainly, the campaign that caused it took off in a way that seems to have taken everyone by surprise, and the spike in traffic may have been way beyond what was tested for.
The point is that as digital technology increasingly forms an integral part of our everyday lives, it’s no longer enough to lay performance testing and the associated contingency planning solely at the door of technical teams.