Design Ideas Opinion

The Missing Value of Quality

TL:DR – I posit that the single most important point of measure is missing from most of what we do with technology, education and work, and yet it has the biggest impact overall, effect on impact, usage, uptake and success. Quality. How do we get quality? Design.

I read some really thought-provoking articles in the last week – they’ll all be in the next Reading List – and I’ve been playing with the new iOS 7. I’ve also been making some changes to a paper I wrote and going back over some of the work we’ve been doing on our mobile learning project. These disparate pieces in my life are somewhat connected, and I’ve been trying to unpack why.

A Question of Quality

Ben Thompson’s post on What Clayton Christensen Got Wrong is a really excellent critique of the low-end disruption theory. It’s a thoughtful and insightful unpacking of the idea, concepts and motivations to spell out why it’s essentially wrong. The case he uses throughout is Apple because it has failed to succumb to the cavalcade of doom pedalled by people like Christensen. At the heart of the low-end disruption is the idea that as a market matures it gets to a stage where consumers feel that a technology is “good enough” to sacrifice features for a lower price point. I can see the logic in this theory – but it just doesn’t stand up to closer scrutiny.

Thompson alludes to a value missing from the equation, a reason why consumers choose a more expensive product over the cheaper. He calls it design, but I think design is the process, what comes from that process is quality.

Quality is something that is ostensibly linked to the user experience – it’s the proof that effort, time, thought, love and care went into how it works with and for the user. Quality is the ability, as Kathy Sierra would put it, to “make the user awesome”. It’s about the way it makes someone feel, not how it performs a task. It is a focus on the actual experience of using and interaction not the numbers on a spec sheet.

This is where my experience this week of iOS 7 comes in. It feels amazing and it makes me feel good to use it. While the visual look of the interface may polarise people, I can look past all that because to me it feels more polished. Things are as they should be and I feel centred and comfortable using it. I also take delight in the way it interacts with my personally applied photos and customisations. It is something that oozes quality in the thought and clarity in execution.

Problems with Quality

The simple problem is that quality is not a number. It’s difficult to identify, measure and truly quantify which means that it cannot work with processes, systems, technology or organisations that depend on data to make base their decisions. At the same time we know it exists and that it is a desired outcome of everything we do. No one sets out to make a second-rate system, but we all too often end up with one.

At the same time quality has the biggest impact on measurable success. When something demonstrates quality people want to use, they like to use and you often spend less time, effort and money supporting, fixing and factoring every conceivable risk.

My example of this would be with the iPads used in the trials. The level of quality in their build meant that none of the devices failed over the two year nor did I have to spend vast amounts of time and money replacing, repairing or supporting them. This freed me up to spend time doing more important and vital tasks. The intangible quality of the iPad’s build meant I saved valuable project resources and had many happy participants who never had to worry about the technology falling over.

The Functional Requirement

These simple problems with quality are really amplified at the organisation level. As consumers we have choice and we can exercise that, but most organisations tend to follow the logical path of Rational Choice Theory basing decisions on benefits and costs. The problem is that establishing these benefits and costs requires measures, numbers, data – quantifiable and identifiable information are a prerequisite. Decisions are therefore built upon the development of functional requirements – a Taylorist and piecemeal approach that tries to break decisions into small, discrete, easily measurable components.

What is wrong with the functional requirement approach is that cannot by its nature take into account something as intangible as quality or take into account the holistic perspective of say the user experience. In breaking things down it creates the space to look at things objectively and develop a strict criteria, which works for exceptionally well for components, but only for components.

What most of us choose to do, buy or use though isn’t simple, they are often complex entities unto themselves, that at the same time are assimilating into the complex context of us as individuals or as organisations. Complexity requires a meta-perspective – the ability to see the micro and macro not as separate entities but as merged dualities. They are interpenetrational and affect each other creating patterns and connections that build network all on their own.

Instilling Design

The design process is about creating and instilling the meta-perspective into the project. It is about using this meta-perspective to find out what quality means – how to define it and how to deliver it but, as Thompson points out, design is simply missing from the process in. Instead design is simply thought of as the visual veneer slapped on at the end, here’s all the “right” functional components glued together – now make it beautiful and make it good.

The reason that Apple can buck the trend and what has allowed them to become the success that they are is because they have focussed on differentiation based on design! As Jony Ive points out:

Every single component, every process, has been considered and measured to make sure that it’s truly useful and that it actually enhances the user’s experience.

This focus on design for the users experience is what produces quality and “while it can’t be measured, can certainly be felt by consumers who are both buyers and users.”

Quality Needs Faith

If organisations (and individuals for that matter) want quality then they have to start incorporating design. It’s simple in theory but it requires both talented designers and the guts to change practice and process to begin to embrace the unknown.

The reality of design is that it dwells in the realm outside of functional requirements. It deals with the intangible and that requires nuance and experience. It requires a set of skills that are rare because they in themselves are of quality. They are beyond the functional requirements of software proficiency, portfolio and quantifiable data. They are qualities like empathy and the ability to be mindful, articulate, intelligent, sensitive and insightful. They are skills that are deeply personal, individual and (most importantly) human.

Quality requires the guts to put your faith in an individual. It’s how we used to do things before we need a numeric measurement for everything. Trust in their ability to deliver and step away from the reliance on data to make decisions and instead but your faith back into your people.


By Tim Klapdor

Passionate about good design, motivated by the power of media and enchanted by the opportunities of technology.

One reply on “The Missing Value of Quality”

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