Defining Quality

The following was first published on LinkedIn on 5 July 2019

Framing Quality

For many years, I have been interested in Quality.

Quality is something unique and needs to be taken seriously because Quality is the only thing most businesses have to offer their clients: I can find your products and services somewhere else, only your quality differentiates your offer from your competition.

Quality is strange because few people appear to know what it is or make an effort to define it. They may complain about lack of quality, but don’t actually take the time to explain it in measurable terms. Frequently, it is the absence of Quality that allows us to frame its definition.

Business people are generally familiar with the basic concepts of collecting and collating, qualifying and quantifying clients’ values, needs, expectations, requirements and desires; they know how to prioritise, plan and perform your work accordingly. However, when one asks them about the amount of quality they will put into it, they can’t answer.

Engineers may answer by explaining how many – or few – defects per thousand line of code they leave in their software, or they may mention the mean time between failures of their equipment. That is not quality, that is minimising averageness.

Salespeople and designers respond with the coverage of requirements and compliance to standards, but that is not quality. It is delivering a product or service that matches what you promised to your customer and does not break down. That’s not Quality, that is the contractual obligation. The fact that you are compliant to ISO9001 or some other industry standard, or that you have implemented PRINCE2 is really of no interest to me as it does not guarantee anything. These are valid standards, but they refer to the apparent quality of your processes, but not of your products and services.

Quality as a Relationship

Quality is hard to define because it is not a functional characteristic you can produce. Quality is not something intrinsic to your products or services: it is the relationship between an individual and a product or service. The quality of your products is the relationship your clients (and prospects) have with them – and relationships are more complicated to engineer, plan, estimate or measure. Relationships may even change from day to day, sometimes better, sometimes worse, dependent on external factors.

Quality is whatever your client says it is today.

So, the question is: how does one plan, design, estimate and cost a theoretical relationship that a potential future client might have with a product that does not yet exist?

Defining Quality

Let’s go back a few years; in fact, let’s go back many years, all the way to the year nought and a Roman architect called Vitruvius. The man’s a bit of a mystery; we’re not sure what his full name was: he may have been called “Marcus Vitruvius Pollio”, or possibly “Lucius Vitruvius Cordo”, maybe he was called Mamurra. He is known to have built a basilica in Fano, but no trace remains of it.


What does remain is his 10-volume treatise called “De Architectura”.

In his oeuvre, he sets out a few fundamental principles defining quality, principles that are still as relevant today as they were two thousand years ago. Vitruvius’s theories resurfaced in the fifteenth century and acknowledged as a source of inspiration for architects and designers such as BatistaDa Vinci and Michaelangelo. In the 1970s, his ideas inspired Christopher Alexander to write a seminal work on architecture defining what he called “A Pattern Language”. This book, in turn, was a source for the 1994 book called “Design Patterns” which fundamentally changed the IT industry and software development.

A Roman architect from antiquity who revolutionised computer software development must have said something of value.

Sense of Proportions

A central concept of Vitruvius was the relationship required to relate the very big to the very small.

He explained that your building, your product, no matter how big and majestic, no matter how sublime and enormous, must have proportions related to those of the human body. The structure and proportions must remain consistent from the highest-level concepts, down to the minutest details.

Today, in the world of business, we need to ensure that our principles, values, vision and mission statements remain understandable and coherent from the lofty CEO level down to the factory floor. Everything – policies, processes, procedures, plans and practices – need to be aligned and consequent.

Quality Without a Name

However, the critical Vitruvian concept for me is his trefoil description of Quality; one which Christopher Alexander called the “quality without a name”, an absolute quality surrounded by known measurable concepts that reflect it but are not sufficient to define it.

Vitruvius describes quality as being composed of three key ingredients: firmitatisutilitatis and venustatis.


The first quality is the stability or reliability you offer.

How well do your products or services survive in times of trouble? How good are they when storms hit?

If you build a house in which the roof leaks or the walls creak in a strong wind, you have failed. If you sell a car that won’t start when the outside temperature is below freezing or a network that overheats if used consistently for more than a week, your product has fallen at the first hurdle, and the very idea of quality is out of your grasp.


The second aspect of quality is the utility or usability of your product.

Of course, all businesses are aware of this and believe that they are delivering something useful. However, this needs to be confirmed by your clients. A Lamborghini Testarossa is of little use to a disabled person trying to go shopping in a medieval cobbled village; in that context, the car cannot be considered as quality as it is not fit for purpose. Few people would appreciate the value of a great enlightened book on the keys to success in their own business should it be written in an unknown script like Sanskrit or Georgian.

To understand the usability of your products and services, you must have a clear understanding of your clients’ needs, beyond their requirements, why they might be interested in your products, and how they plan on using them. You need to understand their business, their life, their issues.


The third aspect of quality is the desirability or beauty of your products.

If I can find the same thing elsewhere and if I can find it cheaper, what would make me want to buy from you? What will make me come back for more in a few weeks, months or years? What is the additional feature, the surprise, the “wow” factor built into your offering? What is the thing I was not expecting but brings more value than I would have imagined? What is it that I have not requested, have not considered, and to which I might not have agreed to pay if you had suggested it?

Desirability is something that was understood by Steve Jobs, but not by Bill Gates: no one ever queued up overnight to buy an upgrade to Windows.

That additional feature or aspect, that extra, that unexpected thing that your client really appreciates, even if it is only retroactively, that is your added-value, where your quality lies. That is the Quality what you need to estimate in terms of value and cost.

Quantifying Quality

In business, you have a risk appetite: your risk appetite defines the amount you are willing to spend, invest or risk without security. At the most elementary level, this is how much work you will do before you get paid. You estimate the cost of labour and expenses based on your risk appetite; it defines how much time, resources, money and effort you invest in developing or delivering something no one requested yet.

The next step is to estimate the value at the same time as the cost, with the same rigour, based on your market research, your understanding of your competition, your knowledge of your clients’ needs and desires, your insight into what your clients’ competitors are planning. That is the added-value or quality of your development work.

What would it bring if you added this function, how much would it attract, tempt, hook your existing and future customers?

If the value is higher than the cost, do it, whatever the cost.

If you estimate the cost to be higher than the value, don’t.

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