On quality

When does quality matter? Is it worth paying for? It depends. Things (1) are either used

  • by end-users (pizza, music, pencil, book), or
  • in systems (2) (screw, microchip, belt).

Systems can be part of other systems and so on; eventually there’s an end user. Things could be used by end-users or in systems regardless of their design intention (wood, stone, fire, flowers, and so on).

Manifestations

Poor quality manifests itself in:

  • Performance: The thing performs its function worse somehow:
    • Higher fuel consumption in cars
    • Slower computations in a computer
    • Less taste in a tomato
    • More thinking required to use a webapp
  • Risk of Failure: The thing works well, but is more likely to fail completely:
    • Lightbulb goes out
    • Plane crashes
    • Chicken fillet has salmonella
    • Heater stops working

Poor quality costs

End-user things:

  • Poor performance can be wasteful, annoying, expensive, and distracting to the end-user. Those are all bad things and I think the cost of distraction in particular is usually underestimated, but I won’t expand on that here.

  • Higher risk of failure can increase mental load – if you have to remember to check for failure, make plans in case of failure, or be interrupted when it fails. Replacement cost of frequent failure can be high. It might be unusable for certain tasks because the cost-weighted risk is thought unacceptable.

System things:

  • Poor performance of system parts is usually amplified in the system; as are the costs since systems are usually leveraged. Drafty windows in a cold country probably cost more in heat-bills over a few years than fixing or replacing them would.

  • Higher risk of failure accumulates (roughly) and the cost of failure for a system is usually high which might make the systems’ cost-adjusted risk unacceptable.

Conclusion

Since systems can amplify both poor performance and cost, it is worth paying for quality accordingly. System costs not born by the builders create incentives for compromising on quality even when the overall economics favour high-quality: rental/pre-built housing, government processes, and software monopolies are examples of that.

It may seem that poor performance in end-user things are not amplified as in systems and therefore unproblematic, but I think poor quality is costlier than we realise. The things an end-user interacts with or relies on – including procedures and routines – can be considered a system and the accumulated costs – reduced focus, time, and ability – of low-quality things can be highly significant.

So when in doubt, invest in quality.


  1. The discussion generalises to things that aren’t objects: software, procedures and so on.

  2. Whether or not something can be used in a system can affect its value enormously. A thing that performs one function well is often the best choice; it can be optimised which means different systems with only that function requirement in common can all utilise that part without unncessary cost or load.