Perception Matters

When we consider quality, there is a word which matters, yet which doesn’t feature prominently in well known definitions of quality (at least not explicitly).

That word is ‘perception’.

Wikipedia has a list of notable definitions of quality covering a broad spectrum, from Philip Crosby’s “conformance to requirements” (which demands a swerve around the question of whether those requirements actually capture intentions and desires) to Gerald Weinberg’s succinct “value to some person”.

On the evidence of those two definitions, it seems that four words are better than three when defining quality. But who’s counting?  Advocates of Six Sigma certainly are, in their quest for 0.00034 percent defects (or 3.4 defects per million x). Such quantitative approaches seem to be the antithesis of the notion of quality as something personal, something which each of us resolves in a slightly different way.

A few weeks back, I was contemplating this subject and set myself the challenge of coming up with a tweet (a 140 character limit) which captured some of my thoughts. This was the result:

To break this down a little, the perception of value is subjective because it is based on our unique set of experiences and opinions, our needs and mood.

What is more, our mood, needs, opinions and experience change, which makes our perception of value variable. They can change gradually over a prolonged period or they can alter instantly due to a single incident or experience. Sometimes we are aware of these changes and sometimes they are so subtle that we don’t notice. So our perception of value might change each time we interact with the product or service.

Even if our perception does not change, we will reassess it each time we interact. This reassessment can happen instantaneously and instinctively. Once our view of quality is reassessed, it is established until the next interaction. In much the same way as a metal object can be cast, then melted down and recast, so our perception of value can be recast each time we interact.

If perception matters so much when discussing quality, what are some of the factors which might affect our perception?

Here are just a few ideas:

  • Previous experience with earlier versions of the same product
  • Previous experience with other products from the same company
  • Marketing, for example Apple’s famous line “It just works” (Apple marketing execs clearly aren’t big on safety language, but then “It might work under certain conditions” probably doesn’t have the desired effect)
  • Company image
  • The people who worked on it
  • Our financial investment (‘sunk cost fallacy’ might come in to play, or alternatively we might set the quality bar higher if we invest more, and may fail to appreciate the value that is offered)
  • Oh, yes, and perhaps at some point, the actual product or service itself

Some of the factors listed may seem abstract or tenuous. You may argue that they are a distraction; that the product and the experience of using it are paramount. This might be true, or perhaps we are simply less aware of the other factors.

Because the perception of value is personal, assessing quality on behalf of others can be difficult. Just because we think we have delivered something of value doesn’t mean we have. This makes discussions about quality in software development somewhat challenging, and thus (as I discussed in this post on ‘Thinking Quality In’) these are discussions we should have early and regularly.

We can gain insights into perceived value by talking to our customers, by thinking about how we can help them solve problems and about how we can improve their experiences with our products, but we must be cautious in professing that we have delivered a quality product without asking ourselves:

  • To whom?’
  • ‘In what way?’
  • ‘When?’
  • ‘For how long?’ 

If value is not perceived then there may be factors at play beyond our control, but  there might be others which we can address. If we are really effective in this, we might even come up with some way of improving people’s lives which they didn’t even realize they wanted. At least by posing the right questions to the people who matter we will show them that their perception matters.

If you aren’t yet convinced that perception is important, take a look at this story about how ‘artificial waiting’ is sometimes used to give us the impression that things are taking longer than they actually are.

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