In a recent post, Anne Marie Charrett discusses quality as an emergent property.
I see quality as a term for value, and it is in itself complex. It can be read as being synonymous to aesthetics, beauty, and probably even to complexity, but it can also – as a term – refer to existential properties such as safety, existence, life etc: doing no harm is considered a fundamental quality in health care, for example. In the real, especially in the reality of projects, quality is indeed emergent: The product begins its life as an idea, we assemble the parts, and in the end the whole becomes something of greater value than the sum of the individual pieces.
But no matter how it emerges, quality, to me, is fundamentally tied to the human. We can define metrics for quality if we work hard, but even the best metrics will never be more true that the humans who relate to quality. This perspective can be debated, but as a premise for my work, I don’t want to engage in such a debate. Rather, I’m interested in debating how to make the human perspective operational in my work with quality and testing software systems.
And for that I have 12 models that can be applied, on three levels in four dimensions each.
I draw it like this (explanations follow, and yes, it’s a pyramid):
First order quality
Quality is something to someone, somewhere at some time. What is that something then composed of. Based on Ole Fogh Kirkeby’s “Greek Square” as described in his books on proptreptic value based coaching, Cynefin’s domains and Kant’s categories of terms, I think of quality as something on a compass disc with four corners:
- Quality as factual, obvious and true. Correctness is a quality in arithmetics, and subjecting a pupil to a number test with a number of addition assignnents allows us to evaluate how good she or he is adding numbers simply by comparing based on the fact that given a+b=c, given a, b being numbers of a known number system, c is a defined value. Sometimes, facts require more than algorithms, as in evaluating “North is that way”, but the principle is still the same, that a presupposition can be proven right or wrong given a concrete context of testing using someone, somewhere at some given time.
- Quality as relational, as when we for evaluate fairness and agreement with something or someone. Still in the context of someone in a given time and place, this kind of quality is relatively simple: We can ask the person, or we can put ourselves in her shoes, understand her, and evaluate for her. Agreement can probably always be evaluated mechanistically, but we still have to make sure that we know what to evaluate against: is it under our control, or a moving target? Fairness is more difficult, as even legislation needs to be interpreted in terms of both its written word, and its intention and ‘spirit’.
- Quality as an emergent, aesthetic, complex property is what we see in software Projects, especially if we look at the human values of the software. In that, people experience wealth of experiences existing on a continuum ranging from bad to good, ugly to beautiful.
- Finally, we sholdn’t rule out the safety aspect of quality. Even when we consider quality in the most personal and individualistic view, one that is rooted in a single persons’ experience with the product, we should not rule out the anxiety present: Will it destroy my idea (WordPress’s App deleted most of this blog post while I was editing it)? Will it destroy my day? Will it destroy me? As I mentioned above, a quality in healthcare is not harming patients. It’s fundamental, but it’s important, and a basis for ensuring that cure can emerge.
That was the first four models of quality. There are four more one level up:
Second order Quality
When I was a child, I played for my own sake. The quality of my play emerged, but it was personal. As I grew up, I began playing with others, and for them: At work, and as a parent, what I do is more serious: Part of growing up is learning to do things for others. Part of learning product engineering (which I did) is learning to engineer things for users.
The second level in the model is tied to the group of users, the team, an organization, the stakeholders etc. Quality is social here, but still bounded. But it can refer to the different domains in which the product has value: In the project, to sales, and to users. There are several ways to move to this level of abstraction, but we need to know what kind of abstract level we’re moving to for this to work.
My experience is that we can only move our thinking to this level if we know what we’re addressing. It doesn’t require absolute certainty, we can create props to represent users by describing them, or we can describe users in abstract terms. But there needs to be some kind of concrete knowledge available about the target of our idea of quality before we can talk rationally about quality at this levels.
But once we have that, we can start working with quality within the same Compass system of fundamental quality values I described above: Factual, relational, and emegergent quality, and safety. (Or as they are named in the Greek Square: The true, the just, the beautiful, and the good.)
At the top of any pyramid is a smaller pyramid. In this case, this is where we move to the universal perspective, the quality that applies to everyone, everywhere, at all times. This would be God’s view on quality.
Factual qualities are often easy to work with, even at this level. Take math for example, which doesn’t depend on neither time, space or humans. Math is a thing in itself, it seems. Therefore it makes perfect sense to judge an attempt to solve an equation as universally good or bad depending on simple correctness:
2 + b = 4 <=> b = 3
The above is obviously incorrect and false.
It get’s much harder when we move further around in the value compass: Can we talk about good relations in a universal context? Is “the just” a universal thing? It’s not as easy as the above example, and I think this is where we really need to call in an expert who has done research in the quality of relations, or someone who knows about law and justice.
Even worse about emergence, complexity, aesthetics: Is there such a thing as universal beauty? I think there is research supporting this, but as a tester, I’ll skeptical about it: I’d rather test with a group of potential users, i.e. stay on the lower level, than employ rules for verifying aesthetic or emergent properties of a thing. Also, I would always suspect such rules are heuristic in nature, not universal.
Safety seems more obvious: Avoid chaos at all cost, and chaos is a reasonably well defined thing, I think, perhaps even mathematically.
But still: In the real it’s complicated. The Picture below is of the UN Building in New York. This is where universal rules for everyone on the earth are negotiated, but even those that have been decided on are often up for debate: We agree we want peace, but how? We agree we don’t want climate change, but at what cost, and who should do it? It’s hard, and as a tester, I want to avoid talking about this level, except as an abstract level I should avoid expressing myself too concretely about.
But that’s all right: I can say a lot of other things. Most of the quality pyramid is readily accessible in my work testing software and the relations real humans have with it.