Quality is Hard Work

From Seth Godin

“Quality is now a given. Quality alone is not remarkable. Surprise and delight and connection are remarkable.”

Cue a million exploding heads in a million engineering departments. Quality is a given? Quality is NEVER a given. Quality takes time, patience, focus, and the incredibly underrated ability to say no to other good things. Writing an “About Us” page with a parallax scrolling background where you talk about how quality is a value, and then going back to the same “nobody cares, look at the A/B testing, let’s do the one that drives revenue” approach everyone else uses does not generate quality. Principle generates quality, and principles are annoying. 

I actually think quality is, almost by definition, the opposite of a given — because quality is when something seems better than it really needs to be. When you own a product, and that product is put through usage or stress that you don’t expect, and it stands up to that usage, that’s when you think about quality. 

By that standard — which admittedly, may have nothing in common with Seth Godin’s — of course quality isn’t “a given”. Everything is still made to be thrown away. Your average priced cell phone is still meant to become e-waste in two years. That $30 drill isn’t supposed to be around for your son or daughter to use. Your Kindle is a commodity, designed to be cheap enough that losing it won’t freak you out. IKEA is still a thing, and so is Buzzfeed.

The problem with quality is the same problem with R&D. The benefits are too hard to predict, and almost impossible to quantify. That means that they increasingly look like costs without purpose, and that’s why they get cut. Why would we ship this product next quarter instead of next week, for a benefit that we can’t prove our customers are even interested in? 

None of this is a knock on surprise, delight, or connection, which are all incredibly important and almost as hard to create as quality. But without quality — real, annoying, expensive, principled quality — the surprise is bad, the delight is short-lived, and the connection is resentment

Surprise and Horrify

In sports, the relevant cliche is about team chemistry. “Winning fixes everything”, which is only true in so much as that we only care about chemistry because we think it affects winning.

Personal touches, connection, humanity — all of these things are amazing, but only if they’re connected to the core experience you’re offering. Sure, it’s advantageous to be a fun, likable human with a great product, but a fun, likable human who drags you through a bad experience is one you’re going to resent. Why do you think people love bearded Brooklyn hipsters when they’re driving down the price of taxis or pushing better banking tools, and hate them when they’re screwing up credit card transactions, or clogging bus lanes?

I know marketers are going to get bored with design and product quality soon. Too many people know what “UX” stands for now (even if they only associate it with Javascript) for the whole enterprise to remain cool. But it will never stop being important, and we’ll never be able to commoditize it, check the box, and move onto something more exciting, because building quality is the work part of work. 

In other news, Apple will make a gabillion dollars next year again while dominating customer satisfaction surveys.

What a weird coincidence.