On Quality

We have a feeling that quality products help us to order our lives so that we can live efficiently and have surplus resources to continue to pursue meaningful activities. Why else would we buy anything? Yet quality itself is an abstract concept and difficult to define, in spite of its importance.

The remarkable book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance grappled with the subject of quality with a capital Q over hundreds of pages through the lens of Western philosophy with a dash of Zen Buddhism:

Quality is neither mind nor matter, but a third entity independent of the two ... even though Quality cannot be defined, you know what it is.

Robert M. Persig

I came across this book before having any interest in motorcycles or Buddhism, but was stunned by the sprawling meditative conceptual explorations across the pages, which no doubt planted seeds for my activities to come. Years of meditation and wrenching motorcycles apart later, I’ve come to what I feel are some effective working guidelines for quality in the realm of product design that comfortably function in the domain of both mind and matter.

A product of middling quality merely functions. This is to say, it solves some problem for a certain amount of time. It is a prototype, or mass-produced inexpensive import. It’s Geocities, or the inexpensive imported tea kettle from China.

A product of good quality functions for a long time. It’s Craigslist, or an old 10 speed Schwinn bicycle. They just work.

A product of excellent quality functions well for a long time, and is designed well, beautifully even. It inspires, because of its elegant congruence between function and form. It’s the Honda CB450, it’s Gmail.

A product of extraordinary quality is designed beautifully, functions well over a long period of time, and does so in a new way. It breaks pre-existing concepts and creates new categories of possibilites. It’s the iPhone, or Tesla Model S.

There’s a time and place for each type of quality, because quality is also contextual and relative to its environment and the needs of individuals. What is now a middling quality tea kettle was once an extraordinary product. And what is now middling for one person may be extraordinary to another.