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Article: Q&A on the Book Changing Times: Quality for Humans in a Digital Age

MMS Founder

Article originally posted on InfoQ. Visit InfoQ

Key Takeaways

  • Technology is an instrument of human activity; designed, created and maintained by humans for humans
  • The quality of technology lies in the relationship between person and product
  • Human reactions and emotional responses to technology can tell us a lot about our products … if we pay attention to them
  • Quality can be considered through Three Dimensions – Desirable, Dependable and Durable – all of which can affect a customer’s perception
  • Quality can’t be ‘built in’. It isn’t an ingredient, but a consideration for the people involved at every stage of a product’s life

In the book Changing Times, Rich Rogers explores how technology can help people and describes the role that quality plays in this. He tells a story about how technology affects the life of a journalist, and shows what development teams can do to deliver better products.

InfoQ readers can download a sample chapter of “Changing Times”.

InfoQ interviewed Rogers about what makes software quality so important, how an understanding of empathy can help to create better customer experience, the three dimensions of quality and what developers can do to create a desirable product, what can be done to regain trust after a software product has failed or acted unreliable, and how to deal with the many factors that influence the perception of quality.

InfoQ: What made you decide to write this book?

Rich Rogers: I’ve always been fascinated by technology, more specifically by the ways technology can help people. As a child I remember my sense of wonder when I encountered calculators, digital watches, VCRs and early home computers. It wasn’t the internal workings of the devices that interested me so much as the way they could be applied and used in our lives. I’ve maintained this interest over the years and as our lives become more and more dependent on technology, I see an increasing need for those involved in its development to consider how they might be helping (or hindering) people with their products.

I suppose an observation from the development teams I’ve worked with and within over the years, is that when quality is considered (which isn’t perhaps as often as I would hope), it tends to be through a very technical lens. There is often a disconnect between the technology and the people it is intended to help. I wanted to redress the balance a little, with a book about quality in technology that is really a book about people.

InfoQ: For whom is the book intended?

Rogers: The central themes around the way technology supports our lives, and how we might think about quality from a more human perspective will be of interest to anyone who works in product or software development. Beyond that, there is a strong theme of Customer Experience and empathy for customers. A few people have suggested to me that the book would be useful reading for those who are starting out in software development, as there is some background on the terms we use and the methods we use. It has also been mentioned as useful reading for executives who might get frustrated with the disconnect between customers and the technology their organisations provide – there might be some answers here as to why that happens.

Having said all of this, I deliberately wove the themes of the book around a story because I wanted the book to be accessible and engaging. The story is about a journalist called Kim and the way technology affects her life. There are experiences and frustrations which I think we can all relate to and this helps makes the points relevant to anyone who picks up a copy of the book.

InfoQ: How do you define “software quality”?

Rogers: The definition of quality in “Changing Times” is:

Quality is a subjective and variable impression of a product or service, instinctively reassessed and recast with each interaction.”

This recognizes that the way each of us determines what we like or dislike, what is useful or not, is personal and also subject to change. The relationship between person and product is complex and built on a multitude of factors, only some of which we are conscious. Each time we use a product, our perception of it is reestablished, but external factors – including our mood at the time, other people’s opinions, other products and our own circumstances – all play a part.

InfoQ: What makes software quality important?

Rogers: Increasingly, our lives depend on the software and technology we use. There is barely an aspect of our lives which isn’t somehow intertwined with devices, applications and websites. One of the great things about writing the book was that I had to observe the way people around me relied on technology and their responses when they found something that frustrated or delighted them.

In some circumstances we tolerate frustrations and annoyances in software. In others, the problems that occur can have profound effects. Technology has the capacity to enrich our lives but also the capacity to harm us and even take life. In these conditions, giving serious consideration to what quality means is not just a matter of good business sense, but an ethical question. There have been high profile cases of technology failing in disastrous ways, but even where the implications are limited to irritations, for customers this can be the difference between forming a positive or negative impression of the organisation the technology supports.

InfoQ: How can an understanding of empathy help to create better customer experience?

Rogers: To me this question really gets to the heart of what quality means. Without the ability to empathise with the people who will use products, we will struggle to provide them with something they value. Companies and teams often talk about knowing “the customer” or putting “the customer” first. But the reality is that there is often no such thing as “the customer”. Instead there are scores, hundreds, thousand or millions of individuals with diverse needs, desires and abilities. Thinking about these people and how they might use a product is crucial in finding ways to make their experience better.

As an example, software development teams are naturally biased towards people who are comfortable with using technology. Yet the applications they are working on might need to be used by elderly people who are less familiar with technology, or by people with physical restrictions to the way they can operate technology. Intuitive support mechanisms and modes of operations consistent with other similar applications can help customers to navigate and use software, but without thinking about real people with real needs, these kind of considerations can be missed.

On a general note, I’d encourage anyone who works in software development to observe the world around them, the different people who use technology (not just the specific products we work on) and the way they do so. It can really help to foster empathy.

InfoQ: In your book you described the “three dimensions of quality” model. What purpose does the model serve and how does it look?

Rogers: Many of the quality models typically used in software development focus on the product itself and the technical characteristics – often referred to as the “ities” – we believe are important, things like Maintainability, Portability, Reliability and so on. The ISO standards include others, for example “Functional Appropriateness” and “Resource Utilization”.

It’s not surprising that there is a disconnect between the people who create and maintain technology, and the people who it is intended for when we use language like this in talking about quality. The people who use our products generally don’t use those kind of words; if my dad calls me up to ask for help with some application or other that he is using, he doesn’t say “this isn’t functionally appropriate”. This might mean something to those of us who work in software development (in some cases they might not) but wouldn’t it help to think about quality from the point of view of the people who really matter – our customers?

The “Three Dimensions of Quality” model helps with this. It provides a set of quality aspects in simple terms, loosely grouped into the three dimensions – Desirable, Dependable, Durable. In other words, is the product something we want and like, something we can trust and something that will provide lasting value? Customer Perception lies at the centre of the model because the dimensions and aspects all play a part in the impression a person forms of a product.

The aspects themselves are described in the book and I provide examples of where they could apply in technology products. I don’t claim this to be a comprehensive or standard view of quality, but I do think it presents organisations, teams and individuals with an opportunity to think about how their products will be perceived by the people who use them, and where the relationship with their customers could be put at risk.

InfoQ: What can developers do to create a “desirable” product?

Rogers: The word “desirable” can relate to how visually appealing a product is – its look and feel – but this is only part of the story. It is important that a product is also useful, or enjoyable to use, or perhaps both. Sometimes a product can be desirable simply because it is new or novel, and this can (for a time at least) counteract other perceived flaws or limitations. These are some of the aspects included in this dimension of the model, but there are many more.

Awareness of what might make a product desirable requires empathy with the target market for that product. Talking to prospective customers and observing how people use technology – the things they seem to like and dislike – is crucial in developing a deep understanding. The principles of Human Centered Design are a good place to start and I would recommend that anyone involved in software development familiarize themselves with some of the methods and ideas covered on the IDEO website.

Thinking back to the definition of quality as “subjective and variable”, it is also important to test and learn, to consider the different ways people get value from a product and how this changes. What is desirable to me may not be to you, and what is desirable today may be less so tomorrow, so it’s important to continually reassess.

InfoQ: When a software product fails or acts unreliable, users lose trust in the product. What can be done to regain trust?

Rogers:  Perhaps the simplest way to answer this is to think about human relationships. If we lose trust in a colleague, friend or partner, it can be very difficult to rebuild. It is possible to destroy trust with a single incident or action, but building it up can take time. The same applies to building and rebuilding trust in technology.

As with human relationships, an important part of building trust is often honesty. When I read about high profile IT disasters such as companies failing to keep customer data or passwords secure, I look at how the organisations respond. If there is a lack of accountability or if problems are covered up, I think this makes the process of rebuilding trust that much harder. In contrast, those companies that respond quickly and say “we’ve messed up, but here is what we are going to do to sort it out” are in a stronger position to recover.

Learning from mistakes is crucial too. Forgiveness might not come a second time, so it is important to understand what led to a breach of trust and put plans in place to avoid it happening again.

The question of ethics in technology is now high profile. Examples such as the news stories about the way Facebook uses data and Uber’s approach to testing “self-driving vehicles” demonstrate the kind of scrutiny the big tech firms are coming under. I think this will only increase as these firms seek to permeate our lives in more and more ways. If those of us involved in developing technology aren’t also thinking about developing trust then I think this will lead to some very serious problems.

InfoQ: As there are so many factors that influence the perception of quality, which are also related to each other, what are your suggestions for dealing with them?

Rogers: In the book “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance”, the character Phaedrus is driven insane by his musings on the subject of quality. This is hopefully not a common occurrence, but at the very least it could be disheartening to think about the many different factors, and the unique individual perspectives we have that affect the perception of quality.

Perhaps because it is a difficult subject, the answer in lots of teams and organisations is to avoid discussion about what quality might really mean in context. It is easy to talk about quality being important without ever really defining what we mean by the word. We might discuss “Acceptance Criteria” or “Definition of Done” and we might emphasise Customer Experience, but I rarely see detailed discussions of which quality aspects might or might not be important for people using a particular product.

You are absolutely right to point out the relationships between the aspects, and this is a great place to start. Mapping out where there might be trade offs can really help. For example, making a product more secure might introduce steps which make it more difficult to use. Frequent changes might make a product more novel, but less familiar. Products which are more personalised may require information which make the product seem less private. These tradeoffs can be discussed and teams can use “sliders” to position which they feel would be more important to potential customers.

Most importantly of all, quality factors need to be considered from the very early conceptual stages of a product’s life, through its design and development and continuously monitored as people’s lives and environmental factors change. Quality is not a static ingredient to be “built in”, but a personal and ever changing impression that can only be addressed through care at every stage.

About the Book Author

Rich Rogers is a consultant and writer based in Sydney, Australia. With a background in software testing, Rogers has worked with development teams in the UK, Australia, Europe and the US on a wide range of projects and products. “Changing Times” is his first book, but Rogers has written extensively on the subjects of testing and software quality on his website and is also actively involved in discussions and debates on Twitter @richrtesting.

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