Quality is relative

November 2, 2011

Everyone I meet wants to build beautiful products.  Many fall in love with a great product (e.g. Apple’s) and only want to emulate what they think constitutes beautiful or great. I frequently see engineers and product managers getting emotionally attached to an abstract conception of product perfection.  Making a product great is making it great for the audience that it is meant to serve. This can be hard for people to see.


Below is a dialog on the multiple definitions of quality:


I was talking to Sam, a Product Manager, about the need to build simple products. 


"You have to always build the best possible product. Anything less is cheating the customer. Besides, nobody would buy anything but the best. Apple has shown us that." Sam said.


I gave some of my arguments for why quality was more complicated.   As we parted I felt I had not made the point well at all.


Afterwards, I imagined the following conversation:


"What kind of shoes are you wearing?" I asked Sam.


Are you wearing John Lobb shoes, at $3,600 a pair? You know the ones with the best leather, finest stitching, and fit like skin. They are best quality made to the highest standards."


"No, I can't afford to wear shoes at that price," he said.


"Are you wearing Hermes shoes (only $850)?” I asked. “They are the ones with great leather, great colors, and a very comfortable fit?"


"Way too expensive."


"Are you wearing Allen Edmonds ($300)? Limited colors and styles, but very nice and a promise that you do not have to break them in." I asked.




"Well, let's skip way down the food chain, although given your religion about quality I hope I am not insulting you, and guess that you are wearing Rockport’s. Now I like Rockport’s. I have a pair of Rockport’s that lasted ten years. So I think they are great shoes.  They are not the best that could be built." I said


"Well….yes, I wear Rockport’s." Sam said.


"Then you do not think that quality has only one definition. Which is fine by me. You do believe that the "lower quality" shoes are perfectly great shoes."  Given my usual tendency to hammer points home, I felt no guilt in making this argument.


"I see your point" Sam said "I now understand this trade-off and will always build simpler products.”  [Remember this is my fantasy!]


"Well, the next time you start thinking that quality is defined in only one way, look down at you shoes."


While we often feel an implicit understanding of quality the real definition is often different than our instincts.   Apple, for example, has carefully developed a culture and a philosophy of quality:

  1. Great looking design

  2. Easy to use.

  3. Focused on the unsophisticated user who does not need complicated software.

  4. Complete but simple (a very nuanced item!).

  5. They have a culture that knows what their boundaries are.


Try using the Mac’s iWeb to build a real website that is SEO friendly or that needs to have a change to the basic look.  What about the Mac’s Finder?  Windows explorer is much easier when moving files around from one directory to another.  I am not trying to be negative about Apple products, I love them.  I just think there is no simple answer to what constitutes the right level of design and quality in a product.


Some steps to getting your definition of what constitutes a great product:

  1. What is the product culture you are working in?

    • Is there a match between what you think is a great product and what has been built?

    • Are you willing to change the culture? Can it be changed?

    • Do other people agree with your definition?

  2. What is your customer like?

    • How sophisticated?

    • How important is beauty?

    • How much capability is your customer going to use?

  3. What problem are you solving?

    • How complicated does the solution have to be to solve the problem?

    • Develop a matrix of features and usage, identifying features that are required and those that are optional.

  4. How important is beauty to your product?

    • Is your customer willing to pay extra for beauty?

    • How do you define beauty?

    • Does your company know how to develop the level of beauty you are asking for?


No matter where you land in the definition, make it bug free and complete. Great products do what they are supposed to do and can be understood by their target audience.   Great products do the job.  I am assuming you know enough about "the job" to make the right trade-off's.


© 2011-18 Westerly Consulting LLC, all rights reserved


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All photographs by Fred Engel