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Quality!

Judging What’s Good and What’s Bad is Harder Than it Sounds

“Quality is not an act, it is a habit.” – Aristotle

There’s an old Doonesbury comic strip in which the main character tags along behind a famous real-estate developer as the latter shows off his newest high-rise hotel. “Gold faucets!” the developer shouts. “Quality!”

The point of the strip is that the two characters have very different ideas about what constitutes quality. For one, it’s flash and dazzle. High cost equals high quality. Exclusivity is good for its own sake. For the other, it’s something more basic, like reliable running water.

In our business, we also sometimes confuse cost, innovation, or feature richness with quality. More isn’t always better. It’s easy to succumb to “feature creep,” where we find a few extra KB of ROM and use it to cram in a few extra features. Hey, it’s free stuff. The customer should be thrilled. It’s like we’re donating our time. Be thankful we didn’t charge you for it.

At the other extreme, there are the minimalist design houses that treat asceticism as a goal unto itself. The simpler and more focused a product, the better. These are the designers who make chairs out of a single piece of carved wood, or who hang all-white paintings.

Most of us work somewhere in the middle, designing features that seem useful while leaving off the really ostentatious design flourishes that would take up too much time, cost too much in hardware, or be too difficult to support in the field. Hey, we don’t have an infinite design budget, so put a lid on the creativity, guys.

The trick is picking the right place to stop. What new feature would your customer value, and how much is it worth to them? Or, more accurately, is it worth your time and talent to add such a feature? Are you better off by quitting now, or by plowing ahead to add that one more tweak?

As product developers, we’re probably the very worst people to make that decision. That’s what marketing people are for (good ones, anyway). We’re too close to the problem. We’re generally isolated from our customers, or from our customers’ customers, to really judge what’s important to them. And so, we tend to add the features that either (a) we’d like to have ourselves, or that (b) are quick and easy to implement. Plucking the proverbial low-hanging fruit.

Let’s take an example from… dentistry? I’m proud to say that my dentist is the best dentist in the whole world. And by “best” I mean “least painful.” She is an absolute master of anesthetic, a wizard with the needle, the maestro of painkillers. I’d almost volunteer for gratuitous elective dental surgery if I thought my insurance would pay for it.

The thing is, I have no idea if she’s actually a good dentist or not. I’m not qualified to judge the nuances of her profession. Or the basics. I have no frame of reference for competency; no reasonable criteria for assessing skill. Obviously, there’s a lot of schooling involved, and years of training after that, but I don’t have a clue how well or how poorly she did on her exams, or if she’s prepared to handle unusual dental emergencies. For all I know, she’s self-taught and is practicing without a license. I’m a wholly incompetent judge of professional skills, credentials, or methods, and I’m making an important decision based on a single, almost trivial, characteristic – and that’s fine with me.

When it comes time to pick a dentist – the buying decision – I pick her every time, based on my wildly skewed perspective of dental aptitude. As long as I’m not the guy the medical establishment picks to hand out Dental Professional of the Year awards at some annual conference, that’s okay. My ignorance isn’t hurting anybody. I can be as arbitrary as I want to be.

Likewise, our customers can be remarkably ill-informed about technology, networking, software, or battery life. In fact, they probably are. They may have wildly skewed ideas about what your product can or can’t do, and even more outlandish plans for what to do with it. In short, we can’t guess what criteria are going to be important to them. Is a 4-megapixel camera going to generate more sales than a 3-megapixel camera? Would more flash memory be worthwhile? Or should we spend time redesigning the plastic case, and offer it in different colors? Or – most heartbreaking of all – should we just spend a ton of money on an advertising jingle and watch the orders pour in?

The fact is, most customers (including ourselves) are incompetent judges of quality, regardless of product category. Who can tell a good wristwatch from a bad one, a reliable power tool from a shoddy one, or a high-quality wine versus cheap swill? (Supposed experts sometimes can’t even tell the difference between red wine and white wine.)

That’s why so many companies – especially watchmakers, restaurants, wineries, jewelers, and automakers – work so hard at cultivating a reputation for quality. It’s because we can’t tell. We don’t know – at least, not beforehand – whether the product is going to be any good or not, and we often can’t tell afterwards, either. “Hey, my $20,000 Swiss watch sure does keep accurate time!” One would hope so.

Quality, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. We can try to define it – ISO 9001, anybody? – but, in the end, it’s the customer’s opinion that matters. And it is an opinion, which means it can be influenced by all sorts of random factors and preconceptions. Quality engineering is a start. But it’s only the beginning. Making a product “better” requires a lot more than just some extra hours spent in the development lab.

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