What is Quality?
Test and Monitor | Posted February 07, 2013

Defining "quality" isn't an easy task. Looking it up in a dictionary leaves you with a handful of hazy definitions. Some definitions are directly related to how something compares to its surroundings; “The standard of something as measured against other things of a similar kind,” reads Google Dictionary.

Other definitions throw in more fluid terms to describe it, like “grade of excellence or superiority.” Nothing real tangible, right?

So what does this word – a word that we use regularly in our conversations around people, products, places, food, experiences and more – really mean?

Ask anyone who studied philosophy what quality is and you’ll most likely ignite a long-winded debate about the subject; whether or not quality is subjective or objective, and if it’s even definable in the first place. So, at first glance, the definition of quality seems to be murky at best. Oh, and if you really do have a philosophy major in front of you, you should go ahead and have some fun with him by asking him to define what numbers are, really. Prepare to have your ears fall off.

Nonetheless, a lot of people work in the field of Quality Assurance, making sure that the products and services provided are of high-enough quality toward the end-user. And despite the fact that the first half in the name of the industry is missing a clear definition, QA people are linchpins in development teams. They make sure that bugs are found, discover usability issues, make sure that performance is stable - in essence, that the product or service is of high-enough quality. Even if you’re not in QA, you are (at minimum) concerned with delivering high-quality work. At least you should be.

High QualitySo apparently some kind of threshold exists for when something has low, or bad, quality and when something has high, or good, quality. Specifically within software development, Mike Bria noticed that the definition of quality has turned into being a “lack of defects.” It makes sense in our industry, since it’s easy to measure the amount of bugs that either slip through or are fixed.

However, that’s only one side of the coin. Mike argues that the other side would be not lack of defects, but rather the presence of value. It sounds nice, but it kind of moves us back into the undefined again, as value doesn’t seem to be as easily quantifiable.

A few people, like Robert Glass, would like to define quality as a collection of attributes. In Glass’ case, these are: portability, reliability, efficiency, usability, testability, understandability and modifiability. While each of these may be more or less important depending on the project, you can never have just one.

Others simply state that quality is meeting the users' needs. While one could argue that the users' needs are met by working towards Glass’s attributes, I’m reluctant to call them equal. While the first approach is more about measuring performance towards predefined standards, meeting the users' needs is much more subjective. In my Swedish patriotism, I may feel that a product from Sweden has higher quality than the rest, simply due to the fact of it being from Sweden.

So, it can be said that at least some level of subjectivism exists in the definition of quality, or that it’s (at the very least) extremely context dependent.

Moving forward we’ll be exploring what quality really is. We might take a look at how quality has been perceived through the ages. Or how about finding out what certain people, or roles, define quality? How would a CEO define it? How about a priest? In the end, I’m hoping we’ll have learned a little bit more about what it actually is. This way we can make sure the work we do, the products we produce, and the services we provide are of high quality.

So stay tuned as we dig deeper into the definition of quality. In the meantime I’ll leave you with Jerry Weinberg’s version, simply stating that:

“Quality is value to some person.”

For now, we’d love to hear what quality is according to you. Give us your thoughts by filling out our short, anonymous survey below.



See also:

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