Fit for purpose?

A discussion of quality and how it is defined always seems to engender a passionate discussion. There are several seemingly easy definitions that are often quoted. I heard a product manager at a conference define quality as a product that is good enough that customers will consistently buy it (the product). The definition sounded a bit cavalier to me but it does have a bit of simplistic charm. Boiling down a number of definitions of quality exposes four common attributes. Quality is partly about:

  • The number of defects delivered in a piece of software,
  • Cost,
  • Timing, and
  • How the stakeholders and customers view whether the software is fit for purpose.  

Each attribute is more or less important depending on the context of an organization and the markets the organization is serving.  For example, a medical device manufacturer’s definition might focus on zero defects and “fit for purpose”. The phrase “fit for purpose”, or it’s alter ego “meets expectations,” is difficult to interpret.

In an attempt to define the concept of “fit for purpose”, the best I found was “a common term to describe the ideal level of quality for products, services, processes or information.” The definition is wonderfully nebulous because fit for purpose (FFP) depends (the favorite word of all consultants) on the very specific perspective of any individual organization, product team, product manager or ultimate customer. An organization defines FFP based on the market they are serving and their implicit and explicit goals. The product manager who defined quality as a product that is good enough that customers will consistently buy it has a definition of fit for purpose that is likely very different from someone that defines quality as a product that amazes its ultimate consumer. In his recent blog entry, 100 Compromises, Seth Godin (marketing guru) wrote: “The difference between extraordinary performance and average performance is simply in the last two compromises.”  Every team, every customer and every context will require a different answer to define FFP.

The simplest answer to the conundrum for defining FFP is to empower whoever is the voice of the customer to define in less nebulous terms what FFP means and then to demonstrably track performance against that definition. In my mind, FFP for my airline website means that I can find and book a flight without having to stop and restart or having to call anyone when the transaction won’t complete.  I would be a pretty easy, product owner. As the voice of the customer, I could easily construct a set of user acceptance tests to determine whether the “make reservations” transaction was fit for my purpose. In agile, the voice of the customer is the product owner or product manager. Complications arise when the voice of the customer is undefined and/or other stakeholders (for example sponsors and/or technical architects) represent the voice in the discussion without a mechanism to intermediate conflicts.

What does “fit for purpose” mean? It depends and that is the heart of why it is such a thorny issue when discussing quality.

Next:  Spinning More Deeply Into Quality.