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Quality is in the eye of the beholder

Every Wednesday, and occasionally another day of the week too, I have a chat with Joen about a very small selection of topics: they vary from talent to quality, and from bad/good opinions to arrogance. Joen happens to be right most of the times, meaning that I go down painfully. Sometimes, we agree. Those moments are rare, though. However, and it’s one of my bigger issues, I try to define something that’s hard to define. This post, I will try to tell you what I think is quality. Sit tight!

Something that serves a purpose is good. Quality is something that serves a purpose but stands out. Examples. Like with music. A song can be more than its genre. Web design: a two-column blog layout can be designed quite well. Movies: Pulp Fiction isn’t an action movie. Also. It stands out. It might not do wonders for the genre, but it stands out because it’s more. It’s more than just serving the purpose that’s constrained by a genre (take note that my use of the word genre is very general here).

Now, you might disagree (yes, Joen, Britney Spears and all), but when I judge things, I take an objective look at it. I don’t have enough experience to know how to serve all purposes, but I step away from my personal preferences. That way I can see that yes, Britney Spears serves a purpose and does so well, but Opeth, a band I never heard any song of, was played into my very own ears yesterday, and though I’m not into metal/goth/whatever, I immediately heard why they are Good. Their music doesn’t fit into one genre, but excels in many. It’s not my music at all (I like other stuff better), but I heard why it is for many others.

Tell me, how do you define quality? Give me examples. They work.

(If you disagree with me, d’accord, but don’t flame here. Explain your opinion or keep your mouth shut.)


  1. Crikey, why don’t you ask a tough question?

    I think you have to go beyond just “stands out” as a metric of quality. Lots of things can stand out but still be crap. And many things that are stand outs are still entirely obscure. Not arguing with you, just expanding your argument. :)

    I think quality, if we’re talking about music, comes from a passion that you can hear. This is why, while I can appreciate that Britney is good for those that enjoy her music, she is not quality because I don’t hear her passion. I hear her producer’s but that’s just a part of the tune. The whole thing should have that passion.

    This is all horribly subjective. I could spend three hours writing about this and still feel like I’m not being clear. It’s tough to do. But, I’m not going to subject you to a long screed like I do Joen’s site. That would be rude. But, damn if this doesn’t deserve a long debate. I’ll have to write something up on my own site.

  2. Quality is doing all that’s required, and a little more.

  3. In some products (boots, for example) quality is all about sturdiness, the “life-expectancy” of the product, its ability to take abuse and still satisfy its requirements.

    In others, in those cases where we can speak of “high quality” (higher quality, in practice), quality means refinement, elegance, simplicity, efficiency.

    Quality might imply the meeting of a standard, or simply that it’s a good product or service. It’s a way of saying that something is better than the average product of the same sort. “Betterness” might be a good substitute, albeit awkward, in some sentences. Or maybe “superiority”.

    I think we can measure quality in 2 ways:
    * by the degree with which it satisfies our needs, in comparison with our expectations (it’s surprisingly simple or painless to use) -- product vs. expectations
    * by comparison with the experience we’ve had with similar products. -- product vs. experience
    Although I wouldn’t want to imply that there’s no connection between expectation and experience.

    I don’t think you can derive a synthetic formula for quality and then apply it mechanically to create “quality products” since quality exists only in context, in the context of a user’s expectations. What you can do is to strive for efficiency, refinement, simplicity, etc. and have people acknowledge these traits as quality, in their own context.

  4. Quality? Any product can be good but very few are actually high quality.

    Take build quality for example. You can buy any number of good computer cases, but the good quality ones will have smoothed off edges so you don’t cut yourself. It will be stronger. It will last longer. Drives will fit properly in drive bays, expansion cards will line up perfectly with blanking plates. They will come with a user guide explaining what all the front-panel connectors are and where they should go on the motherboard. It will be screwed rather than riveted together. The buttons will continue to work forever and a day. the paint-finish on the outside will be perfect, and hard wearing. It will be easy to get inside to work on things.

    “But its only a computer case!” you might say. But to someone who upgrades a lot, or for whatever other reason needs regular access to the insides of their machine, a good quality case makes a world of difference. A computer repair dude will have a far easier time of it when he works on a PC in a good quality case. Joe Public won’t cut their fingers open when installing a new DVD drive either.

    The same is true of websites, mountain bikes, journalism, cheese graters, lemons and just about any other product that man creates. A quality product is quantifiably better made than its competitors and so creates a better user experience.

    All that and I defined it in one consice sentence at the end there :-)

  5. Quality is in details.

  6. Quality is the difference between a ‘need’ and a ‘want’.

    Examples? Pick anything you want. Most people, for instance, ‘need’ a car for transport - in which case the most basic car will suffice. But they’ll invariably ‘want’ something better than the base model because it will offer faster speeds, better fuel economy, improved safety, a more luxurious interior or perhaps a better social status - all of which stem from better ‘quality’ at some point in the design/manufacture process.

    Computers are another example. Almost every student ‘needs’ one to successfully complete University which, in itself, generally means they ‘need’ hardware, an operating system, word processing, spreadsheet and email programs as well as presentational software too. Any three year old computer will suffice, thereby satisfying the ‘need’, yet students will chose new computers, updated software, faster hard drives or even more aesthetically pleasing machines (plug for Apple!) because of their ‘want’ for a product with better ‘quality’ components, software or even because both may allow a student to deliver a better ‘quality’ outcome.

    Of course examples need not be limited to products. Consider a service - like brain surgery. There may be a handful of registered brain surgeons in any given country who are capable of satisfying a ‘need’ for said surgery, but in such a scenario a patient is likely to request the best. Why? Because they would undoubtedly ‘want’ a surgeon who, lets say, operates with the best ‘quality’ tools that may, as a result, offer a better quality surgery, recovery time and outcome.

    In the above examples cost tends to also be a difference between a ‘need’ and ‘want’, and while cost is invariably commensurate with quality, it needn’t always be. The iPod Shuffle, for example, offers double the storage capacity of its flash-drive competitors for the same price, yet is more elegantly designed/packaged and is easier use.

  7. I love discussions such as these.

    We bring our emotional values to words that quite plainly have a specific semantic value. With our discussions, we expand what these words can encompass.

    At this point, it makes sense to point to Google Define:

    The totality of features and characteristics of a product or service that bear on its ability to satisfy stated or implied needs.

    This is just one definition, and there are probably at least as many definitions as there are opinions on the matter.

    The crux of our argument, however, was the fact that in my opinion, someone or something can have a high standard of quality, even if I personally don’t respect/enjoy/use this quality. Even so, I can acknowledge that for the target purpose or audience, it does represent quality work or whatever. From this thought stems the “Britney” discussion: I don’t particularly like Britney’s music. In fact, I despise it. Yet, I do acknowledge that the music has a certain quality; how else would she be a billionaire today (note: answers to this are off topic :) ).

    This brings me back to your question: “how do you define quality”.

    Quality, for me, is inevitably and tightly knotted to the boundaries within it exists. If this object or service satisfies it’s purpose to me, it has quality. If it satisfies it’s purpose well, it has good quality.

    On the other hand, quality is not just “better”; hence the beforementioned boundaries. In my mind, it makes no sense to compare things (Da Vinci vs. Britney Spears: who makes the better quality work?). Instead, and as you rightfully note in the title of this entry: it is up to each and every one to define what they think is quality, and when an object or service has quality.

    The reason I’m saying this is because comparison is essentially void, yet it is what we use to define when something has quality. It took me quite a while to learn this. I’m sure a childrens drawing will mean the world to it’s parent, yet when we compare it to “Crows on Corn Field” by Van Gogh ... the very word “quality” falls apart in pieces.

    I’ll end this rant by quoting Bruce Mau’s Incomplete Manifesto for Growth:

    2. Forget about good. Good is a known quantity. Good is what we all agree on. Growth is not necessarily good. Growth is an exploration of unlit recesses that may or may not yield to our research. As long as you stick to good you’ll never have real growth.

  8. Quality depends on taste: http://www.paulgraham.com/taste.html

  9. Hard to say. To me, Ayreon produces the highest-quality music. To most others, he’s generally seen as good to very good. To yet more others, he’s seen as just normal or not even interesting.

    What defines quality? Personal taste combined with a raw “magnetism” on the thing itself (song, movie, website, book, whatever).

    There is always personal taste playing a part, because personal taste dominates your reception of the world around you. However, true quality shines through when something doesn’t fall into your pre-approved areas of personal taste, and still appeals. True quality demands respect from you. Not everyone will be receptive to that, because people are too diverse, but on the whole, you can see something is quality when looking at it with a few people.

  10. Quality is simply more than just better than the average.

  11. For me, quality is directly proportianate to the amount of care the creator invests. This is why - to me - hand coding will always be better than YSIWYG or why hand crafted furniture will always be better than IKEA or Radiohead will always be better than [insert name of Pop Idol winner of choice].

    Quality has an aspect to it that speaks directly about the amount of effort and care that went into the creative process.

  12. Kev: I’ve found that IKEA’s shelfs (in particular) are rather high-quality, actually. Very easy to put together and very sturdy. :)

  13. “Wisdom is the principal thing; therefore get wisdom: and with all thy getting get understanding.�
    Proverbs 4:7

    —words of quality

  14. Then you’re a better man than me Faruk - after I go to IKEA I end up with a load of boxes, some wood and no clear idea of what to do next ;o)

  15. But Kev, the little IKEA-dude in the manual! He’s so cute and... okay never mind ;)

  16. IKEA has a dude in their manuals now? I should buy some new furniture then. This I must see.

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