The Impact of Subjective Quality
It seems that every journal these days, whether it be printed or online and regardless of the constituency it serves, does some quantitative analysis of quality. Of course, there are also loads of third party quality reviewers (think J.D. Power) and several quality awards (think Malcolm Baldrige) all of which attempt to gather loads of data about actual quality to help consumers decide which is the “best” product they can buy. Most of these analyses miss, however, the subjective recognition of quality. That is, the quality in a product that our senses tell us exists or not. This is, of course, not only difficult to measure, but it’s also relative to our expectations and to our life experiences. In the end, though, it is often our subjective measures of quality that have a greater impact on our perceived view of overall quality than the actual defects and anomalies we experience when using a product.
It’s this reason why so many products with good user interfaces are often recognized as being of higher quality than those with poor user interfaces. Maybe books shouldn’t be judged by their covers, but they frequently are. For software products, a sexy GUI, which is so strongly visually oriented, is seen and interacted with constantly. For many, it gives a much stronger indication of the quality of the product than the computational guts underneath it, which are only experienced through their interfaces. In this light, hardware products are even more interesting since our interaction with them involves many more senses – sight, of course, but also touch and sometimes even smell and hearing.[Note: I’m not referring to ease-of-use here, which I believe is a different, although related, dimension.]
As you might expect, cars are a perfect example of this. Since most of us have had the experience of interacting with many cars through our lives, we all have some perspective on how a car should work, feel, sound and even smell (ahh, that new car smell). As we approach a vehicle, we make a subjective judgement of the quality of the car. Is it rusted? Is it dented? Is a tire flat? Is it dirty? The really interesting valuation, however, comes as we enter the car and start to interact with it. Does the door open easily? Doesn’t it close with a reassuring, solid “thunk?” Is the seat comfortable? There are so many sensory inputs, it’s difficult to even list them. Yet, our brain is taking them all in and using them to calculate that important, subjective analysis of the quality of the car – whether we realize it or not.
Particularly interesting (to me, anyway) is the immediate feedback I recognize from the materials used inside a car and the look and feel of the switchgear. The switchgear consists of the various knobs, dials, buttons, sliders, levers and switches that let us physically interact with the car and/or give us tactile feedback of the car’s various settings. While the functions of most cars are relatively standard, almost every vehicle manufacturer makes different choices when it comes to a car’s switchgear.
First, materials. The materials chosen for a vehicle are often determined by its target market or price range. Even with virtually limitless advances in plastics and manufacturing, cheaper materials still tend to give most people a quick sense of the subjective overall quality of the finished product with less expensive vehicles often sporting harder, shinier plastic surfaces and perceived of having lower quality. Again, these are not indicative of the functional quality of the vehicle, but its subjective quality. Even people who have never been in a Rolls Royce (most of us) will recognize the difference when sliding into a hand-sewn leather seat made from 42 manually-selected hides harvested from cows raised for the specific purpose of donating their overcoats to the drivers butt versus the vinyl, sweat-inducing material in cheaper vehicles and relate that difference to a difference in quality.
Interestingly, the look and feel of switchgear may have even a greater impact on the perception of quality that a driver gets from his/her vehicle. When the turn signal stalk takes Arnold Schwarzenegger size biceps to move and engages with a deafening “snap” sound, leaving the driver to suspect that he/she may have broken the stalk in half, the driver will not likely perceive this as a sign of quality. On the other hand, when a knob is rotated on the dashboard with detents that are subtle, yet precise, the switchgear can exude a sense of quality that is profound, but almost too difficult to describe.
As you would expect, the greater the perception of quality will frequently translate into a decision to by your product over your competitor’s. Does it cost more to increase subjective quality? Probably, but not always inordinately (as in the case with the Rolls Royce, above). The lesson here is to not to focus all of your quality efforts on the underlying function or performance of your product. For many products, the customer may be buying the product for those factors, but it’s not the ones they will interact with on a regular basis. The user interface and feedback that your customer receives from the product will drive much of their overall view of the product and even more of their subjective analysis of its overall quality. A positive view will lead to happy customers who buy more and help market your product to others.