Quality is not a tradeoff.
Scope. Time. Talent.
This is the builder’s abacus, the creator’s code, the manager’s mantra—the three sides of the triangle that describe the equation of product development. Want to tackle a kitchen-sink problem? You’re going to need either a lot of time, or a lot of talent. Want this project out the door by next month? Cut the feature list, or add more firepower. This is somewhat of an exaggeration, of course. There is a tax to adding people or complexity. And not all time is equally productive. But I don’t think I’m too far off when I say that this triangle is pretty well-understood.
But something that is not as well understood is the topic of quality. Perhaps this is because quality means a lot of different things to different people. Transforming lives for the better is quality. Making millions of people happier is quality. There are dozens of ways to measure it, and hundreds of ways to talk about it. For the purposes of this article, I’m defining quality as how well something—a product, a film, a toy, a book—was executed. As in, it sets a standard of excellence. As in, experiencing it, you get the sense that somewhere out there in the vast and unknowable world, some person sat down and crafted something with her hands and the full dedication of her heart, so that the end product wears its maker’s love like a laughing child wears happiness. You can tell—although you may never know or meet this person—that she cared deeply about what she was creating, cared more than was necessary, perhaps, more than anybody expected her to care. You get the sense that she would have made what she made even if it were just for herself and for nobody else. This is because no detail was left unconsidered, no piece of her creation left to haphazard winds.
This is what we talk about when we talk about a beautiful movie, or a novel that puts into words something we feel but could not ourselves so eloquently express, or a piece of truly awe-inspiring technology. There is a quality to the thing that can be best described as… well… High quality.
It can be very easy to lump quality together with the other three pillars of the builder’s triangle. After all, if you ask someone to design a registration page in three days, their proposal is going to be far better than what they could do in an hour. Similarly, if you had five people bouncing ideas off of each other like pinballs in a machine, the end solution will likely exceed what a single person could have come up with. And let’s not forget about scope—sometimes the coolest, best ideas turn out to be the hardest to build. (Want a live blur on your background? That shit doesn’t come for free. At least, not yet.)
Generally speaking, you can trade in more time and talent and scope to get more quality.
Alas, the inverse is not true.
I could ask any number of designers to whip up a registration page to ship in 10 minutes and I bet most of them would only do it if forced, if I all but put a gun to their heads. Even if they were damn good designers who could work Photoshop blindfolded with one hand tied behind their back. Even if I told them it didn’t matter if the registration page was any good because we have proof—real, honest-to-god proof—that 99.99% of users suffered from an affliction known as “registration-blindness” and it didn’t matter what the page looked like, just so long as we had one, so please just give the engineer a mock to build so we can ship this thing and for heaven’s sake the quality doesn’t matter we just need to get this out ASAPASAPASAP.
It just doesn’t work like that.
Why? Because to create high-quality work, there has to be a minimum acceptable bar. And high-quality creators cannot trade off below that bar. They simply can’t. It would be inauthentic to who they are. It doesn’t matter if their peers, their boss, the whole wide world told them that this bar didn’t matter and that the right decision is to give up a bit of quality for speed or time or money or whatever. It doesn’t matter. That person would rather stay up late, or wake up early, or not sleep for two days straight, or not do the thing at all if it could prevent him shipping something that was below his bar. To do otherwise is to suffer a deep and abiding disappointment in the self, to betray private values, to lose personal integrity. I don’t know of many great designers who would choose to remain at a place where they are consistently asked to churn out work that doesn’t meet their minimum bar.
This is why pitting time or new features against the minimum acceptable quality bar is an unfair and losing proposition: “Would you rather build feature X or fix that minor alignment issue with Y?” or “Don’t you agree that we should fix our P1 crashes before we get to P3 polish tasks?” or—my personal favorite—”Do you honestly consider that flickering bug which only 1% of our users see a launch blocker?”
Of course I want to build feature X. Yes, I agree that crashes are more important than polish tasks. It takes extraordinary obstinance and some measure of irrationality to be that party pooper who slams their fist down and declares “I think that flickering bug that only 1% of users see should halt our release.” But imagine if you worked out every day and I asked you a series of questions along the lines of “Would you rather go to a party or work out?” “Would you rather have dinner with your family or work out?” “Would you rather watch a movie or work out?” I imagine you’d probably not choose work out when it’s pitted against the other meaningful activities in your life. And yet, when I look at my friends who manage to sustain a daily exercise regiment, the pattern is that they treat it as a given, as a part of the routine, an immutable no matter the circumstance.
Quality is a bar, not a tradeoff.
Building something that demonstrates craft at the highest level cannot be reasoned into. It happens because of love, and because there was an environment that nurtured that love. Jiro didn’t become a three-michelin-star sushi chef because he wanted somebody to make a movie about him. Steve Jobs didn’t demand nearly-impossible standards because he thought that’s what the market wanted. F. Scott Fitzgerald didn’t write the great American novel because he was trying to publish quickly.
I’m not saying that quality has to be your top value, or that it’s necessary for success. That’s not what this article is about.
But if you do talk about quality, or you do happen to hold it in regard, understand that at the highest levels, quality happens because it cannot happen otherwise.
Because it would be unacceptable to happen otherwise.
Because somewhere out there, someone—or some group of people— care too damn much to allow it to happen otherwise.