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Bad Meaning Good


Good Products Bad Products by James L. Adams seeks, according to its cover, to describe "essential elements to achieving superior quality." Sounds good! As I said in my first (and failed) attempt to blog about this book, I'm interested in quality. But in the introduction (p. 2) Adams is cautious about what he means by it:
Quality is a slippery, complex, and sometimes abstract concept ... Philosophers have spent a great deal of time dealing with the concept of quality. This is not a book on semantics or philosophy, so for our purposes we will simply assume that quality means "good." But, of course, that leaves us with "good for whom?" "good for what?" "good when?" "good where?" and if you really like to pick nits, "what do you mean by good?" I won't go there, either.
My bias is towards being interested in the semantics and so I'd have liked not to have seen a concept apparently so fundamental to the book being essentially dismissed in the space of a paragraph on the second page of the introduction. Which isn't to say that quality is not referred to frequently in the book itself, nor that Adams has nothing to say about quality. He does, for example when thinking about why improving the quality of a manufacturing process is often considered a more tractable problem than improving the quality of the product being manufactured (p. 25):
characteristics of good products, such as elegance, and the emotions involved with outstanding products, namely love, are not easily described by [words, maths, experiment and quantification] - you can't put a number on elegance or love.
Further, he's clearly thought long and hard about the topic, and I'd be surprised if he hasn't wrestled at length with definitions of quality - having spent no little time exploring my own definition of testing, I have sympathy for anyone trying to define anything they know and care about - before deciding to pursue this line. What's reassuring to see is that Adams is clear that whatever quality or goodness of a product is, it's relative to people, task, time and place.

He references David Garvin's Competing on the Eight Dimensions of Quality, which I don't recall coming across before, and which includes two dimensions that I found particularly interesting: serviceability (the extent to which you can fix a product when it breaks, and the timeliness with which that takes place) and perceived quality (which is to do with branding, reputation, context and so on).

I was reading recently about how experiments in the experience of eating show that, amongst many other factors, heavier cutlery - which we might naturally perceive to be better quality - enhances the perception of the taste of the food:
... we hypothesized that cutlery of better quality could have an influence on the perceived quality of the food consumed with it. Understanding the factors that determine the influence of the cutlery could be of great interest to designers, chefs, and the general public alike.
Adams also provides a set of human factors that he deems important in relation to quality: physical fit, sensory fit, cognitive fit, safety and health, and complexity. He correctly, in my opinion, notes that complexity is a factor that influences the others, and deems it worthy of separation.

A particularly novel aspect for me is that he talks of it in part as a consideration that has influence across products. For example, while any given car might be sufficiently uncomplex to operate, the differences in details between cars can make using an unfamiliar one a disconcerting experience (p.91): "I ... am tired of starting the windshield wipers instead of the turn signal."  He admits a tension between desiring standardisation in products and wanting designers to be free to be creative. (And this is the nub of Don Norman's book, The Design of Everyday Things, that I wrote about recently.)

It's not a surprise to me that factors external to the product itself - such as familiarity and branding - govern its perceived quality, but it's interesting to see those extrinsic factors considered as a dimension of intrinsic quality. I wondered whether Weinberg's classic definition of quality has something to say about this. According to Weinberg (see for example Agile and the Definition of Quality):

  Quality is value to some person.

And value is a measure of the amount that the person would pay for the product. Consider I'm eating a meal at a restaurant: if my enjoyment of the food is enhanced by heavier cutlery, but the cost to me remains the same as with lighter cutlery, then in some real sense the value of the food to me is higher and so I can consider the food to be of higher quality. The context can affect the product.

Alternatively, perhaps in that experiment, what I'm buying is the whole dining experience, and not the plate of food. In which case, the experiential factors are not contextual at all but fundamental parts of the product. (And, in fact, note that I can consider quality of aspects of that whole differently.)

Weinberg's definition exists in a space where, as he puts it,
the definition of "quality" is always political and emotional, because it always involves a series of decisions about whose opinions count, and how much they count relative to one another. Of course, much of the time these political/emotional decisions – like all important political/emotional decisions – are hidden from public view. 
Political, yes, and also personal. Adams writes (p. 43)
Thanks to computers and research it seems to me that we have gotten better at purely technical problem solving but not necessarily at how to make products that increase the quality of people's lives - a situation that has attracted more and more of my interest.
And so there's another dimension to consider: even a low quality item (by some measure, such as how well it is built) can improve a person's quality of life. I buy some things from the pound shop, knowing that they won't last, knowing that there are better quality versions of those items, because the trade-off for me, for now, between cost and benefit is the right one.

Bad product: good product, I might say.
Image: Amazon

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