Before you throw yourself into a very beautiful mission of creating high-quality products, it’s important to understand what high-quality means in your context. In this first article of Quality Foundations series, I’ll talk about the definition of quality, what influences our understanding of it, what questions to ask to learn more about quality, and, why quality does not equal testing but can help to prioritize testing enormously.

Cat looking at a laptop Photo by Catherine Heath on Unsplash

Quality depends on your context

“Quality is value to some person (who matters)” - Jerry Weinberg’s quote adapted by Michael Bolton & James Bach

When we think of quality we must first start with a little research around our situation. Who is the person that matters? What is quality to people in your team/project/board/customer base? Often we claim that we “represent the customer”, but do we actually know the customer? Who is the customer? Does the customer matter the most in your company?

The person who matters the most could as well be a very influential stakeholder who is making the decisions and not the actual customers (I will write a future post about how to influence & help them make better-informed decisions). Human emotions may play a big role in the decision-making process.

What questions can help you understand quality better within your context?

Joining any kind of company and team, to understand what quality is, you can start learning more about:

  1. What are your company’s principles?
    What is the vision of the company? What’s the goal? Is it a customer-oriented company? In this case, a lot of times data-driven approaches are respected, and, rather than one stakeholder - data may drive experiments and decisions. It is important to get to know the vision, goal, and principles of the company because they shape the quality values and what actually matters to the company.

  2. What is quality to your customers?
    Whatever type of product you have, is there a chance for you to talk to people who use what you are building? Is there user testing? Maybe UX, Support or Analytics departments could provide some insights on the common usage scenarios or provide some feedback from customers.
  3. How do stakeholders perceive quality?
    In some companies, there may be quality manifestos that align the view on quality. In others, it may be some kind of strategy on certain quality initiatives. In both, there often are a few influential people who may have a different outlook than what is written “on paper” - try to understand what that is. Get to know your stakeholders. Luckily, if the company’s principles are deeply adopted - the outlook on quality may be very much aligned with that.
  4. What is quality to your colleagues in the project/team?
    Every role brings a different perspective on what quality is to them. Not every opinion is a must-do, but understanding the values of people you work with can greatly increase your product’s quality levels. Maybe one person is a security champion in your team - they will raise any issues with that. Another one may know how to drive product experiments better - this can give a lot of valuable insights for all. Diverse teams can bring a combination of diverse knowledge, and improve the product.
  5. What data insights are there?
    All of the above points can get fairly personal and a bit subjective. Data comes to the rescue here: it can help us obtain a cumulative, more objective view on how actual customers use our product and how our systems deal with it. This can tell us what actually matters to the majority of customers. Where can you find all this data in your company? What dashboards are there? What are the key performance indicators? Can every member access it? Is there tracking? Where do logs live? Are there alerts?
    Learn to befriend data to up your quality game - this will help not only to understand what matters but also learn how to spot some patterns, issues, which were not thought-through before.

Remember, context is key for what quality is. There is no silver bullet. If one thing mattered to your previous employer, it does not mean it matters as much at your current one. I’ve worked in a company where the design was a top priority - in that case, I would need to make sure the looks are pixel-perfect. In contrast, Facebook or Amazon (which may not be considered very “high quality”, though), do not take pixel-perfection as their main priority. Perfection does not exist, but we all have to understand what matters to our workplaces most: the looks or functionality. What is a quality product to the people who matter?

What about testing? Isn’t that quality?

One area where understanding what quality is matters a lot is bug significance. How do you decide that? Some people (often reporters of issues) boldly claim “Oh, it’s critical!”, but when asked why, they will go into a long rant why it matters… to them. Let’s remember that the question of significance has an emotional involvement of the reporter and the context. A way to solve this “subjective significance” could be to determine first what matters the most for your product, which parts should be the best quality possible and which are fine not to be top-notch perfect. This can also aid all the testing efforts and make sure it’s prioritized accordingly.

And remember: quality is much more than testing. As Jerry Weinberg has beautifully put:

“We test because people are not perfect, and simply testing “more” does not guarantee better quality.”

Testing provides feedback about the quality of the product, and feedback is extremely important, but remember, quality is a big umbrella term for all things that matter. To people who matter. Learn what that is and that can aid not only testing but all departments in the company.