What Is “Quality”?

It seems to me that what people usually mean by a product’s “quality” is the overall value someone might gain from it, ignoring its price. Sometimes people talk about a product’s “value”, or it being a good “deal,” referring to its over all value including its price. And sometimes people will talk about quality given certain constraints. For example, folks might talk about a “great one bedroom apartment” suggesting that two bedroom place might be better, but that such comparisons are set aside for now. But the most common way to evaluate products is to just talk about value ignoring price. Yet why ignore price?

A status theory is that we most want to know about how impressed other folks might be if we had a product, and so want “quality” to focus on visible features. When price is invisible, we don’t want it included. This theory predicts that other invisible features will also not be included in quality.

Another theory is that we want “quality” to focus on features that we mostly agree are good. The more we disagree on the value of a feature, the less we want it included in “quality.” So if people vary enough in their value for money relative to other features, we won’t want price included.  This theory predicts that other features where preferences also vary greatly will not be included in quality.

A third theory is that we just mentally categorize what we pay for a product as not “part of” the product.” This theory suggests we’d also not include how quickly we could get the product shipped to us, or how easily it could be serviced, in its quality.

Any other theories to consider?

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  • Telnar

    Since price is more likely to vary than other features of a product, it is convenient to have a measure of the usefulness of a product which isn’t dependant on price. That type of metric will also allow a potential buyer to decide how much he is willing to pay for a given quality product. That evaluation can be handy when price is negotiable or likely to decline in the future — saving the need to reassess value as price changes.

  • MinibearRex

    I think you may be making the question more complicated than it should be. In order to determine whether something has a good “value” I have to calculate the benefit that will come to me by having it. Then I have to look at the cost and see if the price matches what I have determined to be the object’s quality. It’s just a computational tool.

  • Khoth

    It seems to me that what people usually mean by a product’s “colour” is the overall hue of light reflected from it, ignoring its shape. Sometimes people talk about a product’s “appearance”, or it being “aesthetically pleasing” referring to its over all appearance including its shape.

  • Waldo

    Lol, this reminds me of “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance“. I enjoyed reading the book, I would recommend it 🙂

  • James Babcock

    When considering products, we look at the most important features explicitly, and reduce all the features that are too small to consider separately to a score, which we call “quality”. Quality is whatever’s left to consider after you’ve already considered the big obvious things. Saying that something is low quality is saying that it’s bad for reasons that aren’t obvious or that you might not have considered. Common examples of low quality include fragility, poor design, and high defect rate. Conversely, saying that something is high quality is saying that it’s good for reasons that aren’t obvious.

    We talk about quality in lots of contexts where there is no price. In particular, we have to consider quality in order to set prices in the first place!

    • But we commonly explicitly describe certain properties, like weight or screen size, and then also include those things in “quality.”

      • This isn’t my impression. I think statements such as “this netbook is built to be light and cheap, but it’s low quality ” or “this 17-inch monitor is smaller than most, of course, but it’s high quality” are very common. Further, in support to James’ theory, things like weight and screen size become part of quality when the product has many parts and those qualities become minor, e.g. “this boat is low quality; all the screens in the cockpit are tiny” or “this house is low-quality; all the doors are light and flimsy”. But we wouldn’t say the boat is low-quality because of it’s length and we wouldn’t say the house is low-quality because it’s a 2-bedroom.

  • Sophronius

    It’s very simple. Humans generally consider two things when deciding whether to buy something: How much benefit it gives them (quality) and what it costs them (price). It’s a trade-of between two factors. If you have a limited budget, you go for low price low quality products. If you can get something for free, you want high quality. It is a very useful distinction, and there is no reason why you would want to combine the two into one definition when there is already a word or phrase for that.

    • This.

      Also, what Khoth said.

      Robin, on the whole I love your blog, but this post makes me wonder if too many of your posts depend upon ignoring the obvious explanation for allegedly “puzzling” phenomena. Please, more well thought-out posts, less of this goofiness.

    • Jeffrey Soreff

      Agreed with Sophronius and Khoth.

      Also re:

      So if people vary enough in their value for money relative to other features, we won’t want price included.

      It can also be the same person, optimizing for two
      different applications. If someone is picking the optimal choice for a
      bolt, the tradeoff between price and strength or reliability will be
      resolved differently depending on whether the bolt holds something that
      is itself cheap or expensive.

  • Occam

    My razor suggests:

    Salesman focus on quality over value because this allows them to increase the price.

    Sometimes people focus on quality because price is a sunk cost. We generally don’t resell our belongings. Thus, price is irrelevant moments after purchase; quality is relevant over a long term.

    Price is itself an indicator of status. It can be high status to get a good deal, or it can be high status to have paid a high price but only indirectly reveal it. Quality serves both purposes: look at the quality I got for this price, or, displaying high quality without mentioning price.

  • Scott H.

    I recommend “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance”. It has a much better treatment of quality. This economist’s version gives me indigestion.

  • dave

    Once someone determines quality, they can start to get an idea of the fair price.

  • Evan

    in these terms, how does a product’s resale price affect the ‘quality’ of the new product? this is usually a pretty big concern when buying a new car or home, but would also be considered an invisible quality, right?

  • I agree that people use “value” to mean “quality per unit price”. And they switch to this metric when they need to. It’s just that they don’t do it more often because it’s hard to work in such units: “hammer hardness per dollar”? “status-utils per dollar”?

  • There’s a book all about this very question:

  • Psychohistorian

    How about, “Quality is a useful and distinct concept?”

    I often need to communicate concepts other than value. If I’m a salesman trying to sell you a bed, and all I tell you is, “It’s a great value!” then you’re going to be disappointed. You want details: size, materials, thread counts, mattress firmness, you want to actually see what it looks like, etc. Quality is one of those criteria – how long will it last, how well-built is it?

    More succinctly, we can’t observe each other’s “value” functions for a lot of things. How much do you value high-quality chocolate? I have no idea. Is X high-quality chocolate? I have a much better idea of that. While not perfectly objective, quality is a relatively objective criterion; value is a principally subjective criterion. Doesn’t make sense to say that one should always be used over the other.

  • Benquo

    Quality mostly describes intensive, rather than extensive attributes. So you generally wouldn’t say a 2-bedroom apartment is “higher quality” than a 1-bedroom, you’d just say there’s more of it. You wouldn’t say 100 big macs have 100 times as much quality as 1 big mac, but you might say that a meal at Per Se does.

    Quality also has to do with sturdiness and refinement. A longer knife is not usually higher quality, but a thicker one, or a sharper one, or one that holds its point better, or one made out of sturdier materials, is higher quality. A sedan is not higher quality than a coupe, but a BMW is higher quality than a Chevy.

    Obviously some quality properties can be expressed extensively too, e.g. sturdiness as thickness. For many of these, though, the effect is definitely not additive outside of a certain range, e.g. a 1-inch-thick knife is useless.

    I think it is very rare to determine buying decisions on the quality and quantity axes simultaneously. Very often your criteria for one or the other will be fairly inflexible. A 4-person family will often insist on a house and a car that can accommodate 4 people, and has to buy 4 meals for dinner. A really high quality 2-bedroom house or a motorcycle or dinner for 2 is not a valid substitute. However, they can meaningfully decide whether they’d rather move to a better area, have a nicer car, eat better dinners, or save the money for later.

    • ouqneb

      Your thought process is of high quality, but noone in Ethiopia would buy it. 😉

  • Unnamed

    Economists also like to separate the price out from the other features of a product. They talk about a person’s “willingness to pay” for a product, acting as if the price is something separate from the product rather than being included as part of the definition of a product. They also draw demand curves showing the quantity of a product that would be purchased at many different possible prices, instead of treating the product as having a single definite price.

  • Nikki Olson

    Perception of ‘quality’ is quite variable, and is heavily influenced by expectations. Intial expectations are established by social factors (what is considered to be of value at the time), which influence ‘price’.

    • Nikki Olson

      It’s unfortunate when it happens the other way around, where ‘price’ affects social perceptions of quality. I think people are less fooled by that these days though.

  • This is a fun and fruitful game: thinking of consequences of explicit theories explaining something that’s obvious. Saying that separating quality and cost is obvious is obvious.

  • arch1

    Generalizing on some of the earlier comments –

    In cases where money isn’t the only scarce resource (e.g. space or power might be additional ones), people tend to naturally break those out separately from quality in just the same way they routinely do with price.

    Linear programming is one kind of systematic approach to certain problems of this type: In LP one tries to maximize an ‘objective function’ of a set of independent variables subject to a set of linear constraints on those variables. The constraints can represent available quantities, and usages, of scarce resources.

  • The Other Evan

    The third theory sounds most convincing to me.

    I do have a Fourth Theory: Quality is used to measure the skill of the people who made the product, thus determining their personal merit. Price is not factored in because that measures the skill’s scarcity, not its level.

    If this theory was true then we would also judge skills other than making goods, irrespective of price. For instance, we would say “X is the best chef in the world” or “Y is the best musician in the world” without regard to how much it costs to buy a meal from X or attend a concert by Y. That does appear to be the case in the real world.

  • The best definition of “quality” that I have seen is “how well the item or service fulfills its consumers needs.”

    The terms `good’ quality and `quality control’ have no meaning
    except with reference to the consumer’s needs.

    W Edwards Deming

  • Mal

    Simple: the price signal overwhelms the quality signal.

    For example: in a blind taste test of wine, people who do not know the cost of each wine, still prefer the expensive wine to the cheap wine, but the spread is much less than if they are told before tasting how much each of the wines costs.

    Unless you evaluate wines ignoring price, you can’t know whether you like a wine more because of its intrinsic quality, or whether you like it more simply because it costs more.

  • Buck Farmer

    Cultural / hard-wired taboos against market transactions make an explicit monetary price a novel idea.

    Our ancestors grew up with reciprocal gift-giving, communal property, and authoritarian control. Market pricing is novel and generally not trusted. Pinker discusses this in some of his pop sci books.

    People probably do implicitly include costs into their assessment of something…but what shows up on the surface is governed more by social considerations.

  • georgi

    We can flip this around. What is “quantity?” It’s not easy to talk about the nature of a good independent of many features. As economists say, A car that you can drive off the lot this second is not the same as one that will be delivered in 10 months. Quality does seem to be a catchall for those positive modifiers of quantity/value not capturable by sheer enumeration. So a bigger box of cookies isn’t a higher quality than a smaller box of the same cookies.

    On the other hand durability is tricky. If a TV is the same subjective quality as another (in terms of viewing) but lasts twice as long, we speak of its having higher quality.

    Marketers say that Europeans focus more on the subjective experience of driving a car for evaluating quality while Americans tend to weigh reliability almost as highly as perceived subjective “feel” when speaking of quality.

  • richard silliker

    .What Is “Quality”?

    An experience.

  • NRW

    Here’s another suggested theory: The quality of a product is a measure of how well it fulfills its function, with its function determined, in large part, by the type of product that it is. One can hammer more nails, or more types of nails, or more nails over the course of a lifetime, with a high-quality hammer than with a low-quality one. High quality ladders are less likely to collapse or be unstable than low quality ones, high-quality massages are more likely to leave the buyer relaxed than low-quality massages, etc.

    It would follow from this definition that judgements of quality would start to diverge just as soon as our opinions about what the purpose of some product or service is. Two people can agree that they want to give their son a “quality education” without thereby agreeing about what that means, because they disagree what the purpose of an education is, and thus what makes an education good or bad. And this seems to me exactly what we do find.

  • Thursday

    Quality is related to the end for which something is made. Does it do what it was intended to do well.

  • Quality is a parameter which signifies and evaluates the products features which make this beneficial for their consumers, degree of quality shows the authenticity and usability of products

  • Drewfus

    Quality is the inverse of the predictability of demand.