What is Quality?
Posted December 16, 2021
Written by Andy Still, Xpanxion Software Quality Practice Director
As Software Quality Service experts with many years of experience we have interviewed hundreds of candidates, and we almost always ask what seems to be the simplest question that someone seeking a job in Software Quality should be able to answer:
“What is Quality?” Sometimes, we’ll even try to make it less of a ‘right or wrong’ type of question by appending “… to you?”
Inevitably, the answers disappoint.
Why is this question so difficult to answer? Why do seasoned professionals struggle with it so much? Why do you get more answers than the number of people who were asked? And, why so often do the answers reflect a very limited aspect of quality?
The most common answer I hear is likely the result of poor certifications and books which take the most limited and least useful aspect of quality with “Adherence to specifications.” But what if those specifications are wrong, or simply don’t meet the demand of the customer, or what if they don’t meet the customer’s expectations at the right time, or to the right degree? While this answer is easy to regurgitate, it fails to capture many facets of this attribute that seem to elude most.
Perspective and Context
The reason so many answers exist and make this a difficult question for any professional is that there is no one right answer. The answer really depends on the context and perspective within which “Quality” is being defined. By context, we’re referring to everything that makes up the environment in which quality is being defined: the product or software under test, specific environments, tools, people, processes, and external pressures such as competition, financial, security and other factors that must be considered to assess quality. By perspective, we’re really trying to answer two questions: “To whom?” and “From what vantage point?” This could, and has, filled books, and the scope of this writing is not to try to fully answer these questions, but to make clear that they are important aspects of answering “What is Quality?” To be clear, we are dramatically reducing the scope of this article only to software – there are some contexts in which the definition of quality can be even more complex and nuanced, and those areas are far outside our scope of expertise.
When considering perspectives, our first inclination might be to say that we should consider what is best for the ‘customer’ or ‘end-user.’ This is a good first step but when you take the thought one step further, you will see that it isn’t quite so clear to attribute quality to meeting the demands of a single customer. For instance, to which customer(s)? Only your target demographic? All customers who might use the product or service you are creating? What approaches to quality are not purely customer-focused? And even when you can agree on the “To whom?” portion of the question, then what about the timing of the usefulness to that customer? Would you still be effectively meeting their need in 5 years (or sometimes 5 weeks) as you are today? What might change between now and then that might affect the “quality” that customer receives from your offering?
The 2008 movie “Vantage Point” attempted to capture the same scene from multiple perspectives in order to tell the whole story of a particular event to solve a mystery. This might be a good metaphor for what is required in planning for, executing, and assessing quality within software. In addition to people and personas representing segments of people, we might ask how well we adhered to requirements, then we might ask if we are building the right product or service, or if we have built it in the right ways. Does it meet our customers’ requirements, but also, does it provide real value to those who use it? Does it perform seamlessly for the customer, but also, does it provide the security needed for their personal information? An increasingly necessary question today might be, does it make lives better, or does it cause more harm than good?
So, What is Quality?
It would literally take a book to do this question justice. Many have tried to capture it. Let us sum it up. There is no single right or complete answer to the question. This should not keep us from trying but should inspire us to look for more ways to build and assess quality using many perspectives and contexts, while remembering to stay humble and inquisitive. My favorite answer so far, though it still lacks something, is from Gerald Weinberg: "Quality is value to some person." If you ever have the opportunity to interview with us for a quality role, please don’t answer this question with a simple “adherence to requirements” kind of answer. Give it some thought ahead of time, and give us your real philosophy for quality.
What is Quality to you? How would you enhance the definition? If you search for “What is Software Quality?” you’ll likely find enough answers to get you thinking through many different approaches and aspects of quality, and ultimately, that is what I hope we’ve accomplished here.
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