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Benchmarking is an improvement process in you measure performance against that of ‘best in class’. It can then be used to determine how they achieved their performance levels and improve your own performance levels based on this insight. Anything can be measured can be benchmarked.
A football team who wins the Premier League such as Leicester City becomes the ‘benchmark’ where other teams in the league have to compare themselves to in order to improve and win themselves. A bike that a rider uses to win the Tour De France, becomes the best bike and competitors can study various factors about the bike such as geometry, weight, components, aerodynamics.
When something becomes a benchmark it then becomes a subject of analysis by which others are compared on the same metrics. These metrics depend on the domain in question. The parameters that can be researched may include strategies, operations, processes, procedures, technical details.
However, some parameters are more subjective than others. For example with a computer you can measure the number of threads on a core or the specific material used for the processor. Whereas with a sport there may have been other factors that would skew the benchmarking such as the weather impacting the performance of a Formula 1 car.
Benchmarking is of particular importance in the tech and IT industry. Many big businesses will have a whole team dedicated to measuring performance and analysing data. They then use that information to improve various aspects of the company.
In the context of UX (User Experience) design benchmarking might take the form of A/B testing where users are shown one page and then a variation on the page. Then the performance is checked for each page – how many clicks, user behaviour, and revenue. This enables you to discover the better strategies for the page design. The best performing one becomes the benchmark against which others are tested.