What is quality?

Is quality an objective measurement and can it truly be defined and applied to software?


Google ‘quality’, I dare you. If you’re anything like me, you will conduct research, canvas opinions and test your conclusions before you publish them. When it came to ‘quality’, I think this was possibly the worst thing I could have done. I don’t think I’ve ever found so many compelling arguments verging from the pragmatic to the philosophical. Most of my research found that almost all commentators feel quality is objective. However, due to these being arguments, debates and explanations I could only conclude that fundamentally, it’s not! It would be a contradiction to say so when there are clearly so many different views. So, at a high level, I believe quality is subjective. There you go, job done...

Well, that wouldn’t give you a good quality article to read now would it…would it? What I do know is that quality is relative. From one person to the next regardless of industry or role, everyone has a different definition. Let’s look at a few; we’re all lied to during our school years, so this GCSE business studies definition is a great example: ‘meeting the minimum standard required to satisfy customer needs’. Wow. I heard your jaw hit the floor. Since when did producing quality mean ‘meeting the minimum’? But then, if you ‘satisfy your customer’s needs’ then you are hitting the quality standards they would expect, right? Wrong. My neighbour asked me to ‘feed his cat’ whilst he was on holiday. The minimum requirement would therefore be his cat eating food. What could go wrong? Overfeeding, under feeding, the wrong food, poisonous food, allergies etc. any of these could lead to consequences from the annoying, the disgusting or even fatal. I simply cannot subscribe to an argument that quality can be produced by doing the minimum.

Dictionary Definitions

The ISO 8402-1986 standard defines quality as ‘the totality of features and characteristics of a product or service that bears its ability to satisfy stated or implied needs’. A couple of things occurred to me after reading that definition; a product or service might have all the features required, but if the end-user does not understand how to utilise those features then the software is useless. I always refer to the all-singing, all-dancing website that end-users are unable to make sing or dance. Being useless generally isn’t conducive to being described as quality. Secondly, the inclusion of ‘implied needs’ stuck in my mind. Are we not measuring the quality of the software we produce because we haven’t worked out any needs that were only implied? Of course we are, but that’s because we ensure we make the effort to understand our customer’s implied needs and turn them into stated needs. Understanding ‘implied needs’ and documenting them are part of the extra processes that help us achieve the quality we expect.

When trying to establish what exactly quality is, various definitions that can be perceived differently are not necessarily going to provide you with a definitive answer. Taking several and putting them together to build a holistic picture of quality can sometimes help. For instance, some of the more concise definitions are:

  • The degree of excellence
  • Conformance
  • Fitness for use/purpose
  • Freedom from defects
  • Delighting customers

I like almost all of these, although for me, they all look at quality from a slightly different angle. However, although ‘freedom from defects’ might be the ultimate goal, it’s highly unlikely that a piece of software will ever be completely free from defects so I find it a little misleading. ‘Minimal defects’ would be better, with those remaining defects unlikely to be ‘known’ and therefore will rarely be seen and would be very low risk. Although this will all depend on skills, resources and budgets.

To meet or to exceed? (expectations)

‘Delighting customers’ is a wonderful way of defining quality! They will only be delighted if the software does everything they want it to do, is easy to use and looks good. However, just because you don’t delight customers, it doesn’t necessarily mean the software is not high quality (although it might!). You can’t please all the people all the time, however hard you might try. Understanding why it hasn’t delighted them would be the first step to changing that perception, whether it involves increasing the quality, changing customer attitudes, or understanding what they were going to receive.

Ultimately, we need to be thinking about the customer needs and measuring the quality against a range of criteria built from research, customer interactions and what we understand about the industry, the business and the end-user. Once we‘ve broken down the objectives that if met will provide quality, we have an objective measurement of quality. Personally, I never feel comfortable unless I’ve done everything I can to produce the highest quality I can and always ask: is it good enough? And even when the answer is ‘yes’, we still need to ask how we can make it better.


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