Quality Defined: Just Two Ways?

August 25, 2022

I am not sure what to make of “The Two Types of Quality.” A number of years ago I was in Osaka and Tokyo to deliver several lectures about commercial databases. The topic had to be narrowed, so I focused on the differences between a commercially successful database like those produced by the Courier Journal & the Louisville Times, the Petroleum Institute, and ERIC, among a handful of other must-have professional-operated databases. I explained that database quality could be defined by technical requirements; for example, timeliness of record updating, assigning a specific number of index terms from a subject matter expert developed and maintained controlled vocabulary (term) list, accurate spelling, abstracts conforming to the database publishers’ editorial guidelines, etc. The other type of quality was determined by the user; for example, was the information provided by the database timely, accurate, and in line with the scope of the database. Neither definition of quality was particularly good. I made this point in my lectures. Quality is like any abstract noun. Context defines it. Today quality means, as I was told  after a lecture in Germany, “good enough.” I thought the serious young person was joking. He was not. This professional, who worked for an important European Union department, embraced “good enough” as the definition of quality.

The cited essay explains that there are two types of quality. The first is “purely functional.” I think that’s close to my definition of quality for old-fashioned databases. There were expensive to produce, difficult to index in a useful, systematic way even with our human plus smart software systems, and quite difficult to explain to a person unfamiliar with the difference between looking up something using Google and looking up a chemical structure in Chemical Abstracts. When I was working full time, I had a tough time explaining that Google was neither comprehensive nor focused on consistency. Google wanted to sell ads. Popularity determined quality, but that’s not what “quality” means to a person researching a case in a commercial database of legal information.

The second is “quality that fascinates.” I must admit that this is related to my notion of context, but I am not sure that “fascination” is exactly what I mean by context. A ball of string can fascinate the cat owner as well as the cat. Is this quality? Not in my book.

Several observations:

  1. Quality cannot be defined. I do believe that a company, its products, and an individual can produce objects or services that serve a purpose and do not anger the user. Well, maybe not anger. How about annoy, frustrate, stress, or force a product or service change. It is also my perception that quality is becoming a lost art like chipping stone arrowheads.
  2. The word “quality” can be defined in terms of cost cutting. I use products and services that are not without big flaws. Whether it is getting Microsoft Windows to print or preventing a Tesla from exploding into flames, short cuts seem to create issues. These folks are not angels in my opinion.
  3. The marketers, many of those whom I met were former journalists or art history majors, explain quality and other abstract terms in a way which obfuscates the verifiable behavior of a product or service. These folks are mendacious in my opinion.

Net net: Quality now means good enough.

That’s why nothing seems to work: Airport luggage handling, medical treatments of a president, electric vehicles, contacting a local government agency about a deer killed by a rolling smoke pickup truck driver, etc.

Quality products and services exist. Is it possible to find these using Bing, Google, or Yandex?


Stephen E Arnold, August 25, 2022


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