Case Study: See How Leading Interactive Design Firm Zurb Delivers High Performance Web Apps


Great Experiences Breed Greater Expectations

Even if you don’t recognize the name, you’ve definitely used products made possible by ZURB. The dynamic interaction design and strategy firm has put its user-focused ethos and experience to work for Facebook, eBay, NYSE, Yahoo!, Zazzle, Playlist, and even pop princess Britney Spears. Through consulting engagements, training workshops, books, events, and widely-used applications, the company has helped more than 150 clients improve their products and services. In addition to their primary web presence, ZURB has five customer-facing Ruby on Rails applications, each running on Apache mod_rails from servers hosted at Rackspace:

  • Notable, an app to help folks share their ideas and feedback about a website by capturing the screenshot of any site, annotating it and sharing their notes with their teams or clients;
  • Verify, an app to help people get quick proof behind a concept or an idea they have by uploading a mockup or screenshot, adding a question, and creating a quick test to ask people for their opinion;
  • Bounce, a very basic app to capture any website, add notes to it, and share your notes without logins or signups;
  • Clue, an app to capture any website and create a 5 second memory test from it to see what people remember from a quick glance at your landing page.; and
  • Parade, a simple app for scheduling Flickr photo uploads.

Zurb Spotlight

New Relic’s Brian Doll discusses Zurb’s application environment with lead engineer Matt Kelly:

Mediocre Performance Is Not an Option

When your business is designing and building web apps, performance is crucial for maintaining leadership. ZURB can’t afford to let app slowdowns degrade the user experience. If they’re at conferences advising audiences to meet or exceed expectations for response times and “do no harm” when adding new features, then they’ve got to make sure Notable, Verify, and the rest of the suite live up to those same standards. Matt Kelley, the company’s lead engineer, explains, “our apps need to respond as fast as users expect them to, depending on the interaction.” But when all those conference attendees who loved your talk start flocking to your apps, or their popularity spurs continuous improvements, it can be difficult to keep up. “We needed a way to quickly diagnose issues occurring from traffic spikes and code changes. And that meant gaining visibility into real-time performance data in a format that could be easily read and filtered,” says Kelly.

Instant Clarity

Before seeking a monitoring and troubleshooting tool, ZURB evaluated application performance and found issues by using a script that parsed production logs to pull out the response times. But these only provided data after the fact, so the team weren’t able to solve production issues on the spot. Plus, the reports didn’t give enough actionable detail; precious extra time and effort were required to hone in on the root cause. Needing faster, more comprehensive results to avoid any potential negative user experience impacts, ZURB turned to New Relic RPM, which they were able to implement in minutes. “We simply installed the gem, dropped in the config file, and it was up and running,” reports Matt Kelly. “Now we get response-time data in real time, with enough detail to see how long each part of the request takes. When there’s a traffic spike, we can quickly find bottlenecks and repair them to keep things running smoothly. We also have the power to be proactive in identifying and fixing pages that might cause issues under a heavy load.”

When investigating the source of a problem, ZURB often relies on RPM’s extensive set of filters and view options – particularly the web transactions view and attendant performance breakdown. The effects are evident in the team’s more streamlined deployments. “We recently pushed a huge code change and saw the response times for some pages increase significantly,” recalls Kelly. “The performance breakdown chart for those responses showed one partial generating the bulk of the render time. After pinpointing that piece, getting to the culprit in the code was simple.”

Happy Users, Healthy Growth

In everything they do, Kelly and the rest of the ZURB engineering team always put the user first. The success of their applications hinges on seamless, satisfying interactions, and the increasing demand for their consulting services is a byproduct of the superior results they’ve delivered for clients. By enabling ZURB to identify performance issues quickly and assure an exceptional user experience, New Relic RPM helps the company continue to maintain its edge. According to Kelly, “It’s the best tool out there for logging and displaying response times for Rails apps.” In addition to stoking brand loyalty and reinforcing the company’s position as an interaction design thought leader, top-notch application performance management capabilities also yield important operational and individual benefits. The time they save in problem resolution increases the team’s efficiency and allows them to focus resources on innovation. Even better, acknowledges Kelly, “green lights on the dashboard are good for your personal health.”

ZURB Your Enthusiasm

To learn more about ZURB’s products, services and strategies for growing business, visit them at And if you’re the passionate, roll-up-your sleeves type with serious interaction design skills, they’re always on the lookout for fresh talent.

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