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What is Quality?

It’s a question that all software delivery professionals must think about daily. What is quality?

Seth Godin challenges us to think clearly about quality, describing at least three definitions of how we use the word quality at work. I build my thoughts on top of them below.

Quality as defined by Deming and Crosby: Meeting spec.” In the process of manufacturing watches, it means manufacturing each component to a precise measurement, within a set tolerance. In the world of software delivery this normally means building software to meet a specification. We often put process and procedures in place (typically a testing team or a project management office) to test that the thing being delivered meets specification. With this perspective, writing code to meet the specification documentation exactly would mean we have achieved the highest possible quality product, right…….?

Quality as defined by Ralph Lauren or Tiffany: The quality of deluxeness.” Deluxeness doesn’t seem to be an actual word but we’ll run with it as I’ve quoted directly. This can be translated to luxury, and is another way we view quality. A Timex and a Patek Philippe can be built exactly to their own specifications, but the outcome is two very different watches. One of superior quality than the other. One we are proud to wear and show off to boost our social status, the other a functional timepiece. One we would gladly enter a long wait list to purchase for thousands of pounds, the other a ‘Delboy’ style trinket from a holiday to Tenerife.

In software this quality is represented by the users experience with the application, which has the complexity for the builders by being subjective, particularly between customer segments. For example, some customer segments will consider receiving a letter in the post as a better and therefore higher quality experience over receiving the same information in an email. Some customers will do all their banking via a website, whilst others wouldn’t even open an account with a bank that didn’t provide a mobile app with a simple, easy to use interface. As I have personally experienced, a login process that involves remembering three or four passwords feels painful and will result in a move to a different product.

“.... quality of right effort, of “I did my best,” of the sweat and vulnerability that happens when a human has given it her all.” This view of quality is my favourite, giving value to the human effort, care, attention and love put into building a product. Whilst this quality is hidden from the user in all physical products I can think of, I consider this to be the quality that underpins the other two. You know when something has been built by someone who really cares, someone who put their heart and soul into creating something. This always increases the 'built to specification' and the 'deluxeness' qualities.

Think about it, when your grandmother tells you that she put all her love into cooking you an apple pie, it always tastes better and can even leave you with lifelong memories. The image below shows a master watchmaker using some precision tooling to help him

hand craft one of the most complicated watches in the world. I've no doubt that he is pouring his heart and soul into the task. I'd be proud to wear a watch he handcrafted.

All AMG engines are proudly put together by a human. They are so proud and confident that they have mastered their craft they put a personalised signature plate onto each engine they build, declaring to the whole world which engines received their personal love and attention.

If quality has multiple dimensions we must think clearly about which quality we are trying to improve in either a process or a practice. The intention with this short blog post is to provoke reflection on the question “what is quality” for at least one person. If you’re reading this we’d love to read or hear what quality means to you, please leave a comment below or contact us directly via LinkedIn or Twitter.

I’ll finish with a few questions to reflect on.

Which quality matters the most in the context you’re working in?

Would you be proud enough of the product you built, or helped to build, to put your name ‘above the door’ for the world to see?

Which product or service you use do you consider to be high or low quality? What is it about the product or service that makes it high or low quality?

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