Defining A Principle of Quality that works

Quality was what set the good craftsmen apart form the bad ones. It was why some brands became more revered than others. The illusive idea is why Apple sells so well, why some artists are better than others. But what the hell is quality? Does it change from artist to artist? Does it mean something different for cars than for software? No. I don't think so. I think there's a common feature for all types of good quality.

Using Cognitive Psychology to reveal quality

In academic circles scholars of cognitive psychology  have been debating and hacking the human perception for a very long time. One of my favorite tidbits of knowledge from my student days is that negatives are worth twice as much as positives. That means if I give you $100 and then take it back, you'll feel as if you've lost more money than you felt you gained in at first. Put another way: if you spend $50 and earn $100 dollars you'll feel you made about even. Losing something is negative, and is therefore twice as important to you perception.

This gives us valuable clue to Quality. Let's see how far that can bring us.

If negative values, and negative experiences, create stronger reactions in users we should look at minimizing these as much as possible. If we get close to no negative values we'll have a  really solid product experience regardless of the products positive values.

For example, if you create an app where every action gives clear feedback it will feel great. Even if the UX design isn't all that great from the start.

Getting the values right

But wait, let's back up a bit. What is a negative value? And what is a positive value? We're talking about products here! What is a negative in a web app?

Happily, another branch of cognitive psychology has dealt with what value is. This is the theory: there is no "real" value. Only subjective, or perceived,  value. That is to say: water to a man dying of thirst has a lot of value, while water to a man at a cocktail bar in NY is worth very little. This sounds really basic right? But if all value is relative to experience that also means that we determine reasonable prices from prices around us. We distinguish beauty not by their own beauty but by how much less beautiful the other people around us are. Dan Ariely has some great examples of this in his book Predictably Irrational.

The good part starts 12 minutes in.

So all value is interpreted relative to similar experiences by each individual. How does that help us? That means every experience is valued compared to other, similar, experiences.

So?

Well if people experience negative values much stronger than positive ones, we need to focus harder on making our apps perform at least as well as other apps the users are using instead of trying to one-up our competitors. This will make out UX more positive than focusing on making the positive experiences better. Most Human Computer Interaction studies are actually based on this. They're often studies to define how consistency works. And consistency is exactly what I'm talking about here. But not internal consistency, while that to is extremely important, but experience consistance for the user. No matter what that use might look like, spanning over machines, apps, platforms and use cases.

Summing up

A principle of quality, a rule of thumb that works for all products and services, is not making something really well. It's minimizing the negative impact of shortcomings.

So how do we use this principle?

  • Don't show the user experiences that aren't finished. Release early release often as much as you want, but don't release half baked.
  • Polish one feature instead of making two features.
  • Make sure other apps aren't making your experience feel broken by creating an experience gap that will feel negative for example the pull-down-to-refresh UI of iPhone apps.
  • Look at the platform. Look at the most popular uses. Look at the environment it will be used in. Then try to be consistent.
  • Make your marketing consistant with your experience, or you might end up making your product feel worse than it is

The perfect example of not understanding quality is the Nokia N97, enjoy!

Another great example of achieving quality, not by adding features, but by managing your negatives is the iPhone and iPad operating system. Just compare these transition effects from iOS to the Android counter parts:

Quality as an USP

I recently gave my first impressions on PopCap games latest casual title Plants vs Zombies. It's a really fun game that has very little in common with the other hit titles from PopCap except for one thing: quality. All of PopCaps games are genuine quality products with little if any glitches and no flimsy art that cramps their style. Well so what? It's simple, quality is lacking in a lot of big titles. And quality is the ultimate deal breaker with entertainment. Let's explore why:

Most games are quality products that have bugs, glitches or unfinished parts due to last minute feature additions or late night crunching to ship the title. This is all well and good. We seem to be selling a lot of games. But looking at the numbers in another light we also see that individual titles seem to sell less from year to year. This decline can't be solely based on one factor of course; competition, piracy mega hits like World of Warcraft have very clear effects on the sales of games. But quality is a factor that has been overlooked for a very long time from the developers point of view. Quality over a certain "it works dammit" threshold just isn't cost efficient enough.

Before I give a few examples of why this is not necessarily true let me just define what I mean with quality:

Quality doesn't mean that the game is good. It means that whatever your game or product does it does good.

You never see a Ferrari with a wobbly steering wheel. That would devastate the drivers experience of the Ferrari. Likewise you seldom see cartoon characters in real world sitcoms. Or a pinkish plastic cover, that falls off, on your new MacBook. So why is it we find crashes, graphical glitches, strange sounds and missing textures in AAA games?

Because quality was not an issue for the developer. The features were.

Look again at PopCap games, do they have the features of other casual titles? In some cases yes, in others no. Apple's iPhone isn't close to cheaper smart phones in terms of features and power. Yet it outsells them ten to one. The list goes on. But the point is that production companies might want to start looking into quality instead of features.

Maybe you don't need to be able to customize everything in the game. Maybe it just needs to look great from the start.