Juhani Anttila
Venture Knowledgist Quality Integration
Helsinki, Finland
www.QualityIntegration.biz

 

PRODUCT QUALITY IN SOFTWARE BUSINESS CONNECTION

Abstract

Product and its quality are clarified in this paper at first conceptually. After a clear general understanding of product-concept and a product's inherent characteristics, satisfaction of users (customers) and the other interested parties is considered. This general insight is applied to the software industry's business needs where the products are strongly service and information or knowledge content. Within software industry there are many quite different business areas. Practical experiences presented in this paper where the general described principles have been applied are from an e-business software engineering application for a B2B case.

Product concept for the software industry

As a whole the software industry does not fundamentally differ from any other business branch. Any company as well as a software company has its own business mission, vision, and correspondingly own approach for management and leadership. Business is run as projects or processes in order to produce outputs to the needs and expectations of markets or individual customers. Software industry is strongly based on projects. However, when plenty of projects are being simultaneously and continuously carried out, the business can be effectively and efficiently done only through processes, project-processes.

Within software industry there are many quite different types of businesses, where typical buyer-supplier relationships are characteristically different. Examples include software products, such as commercial-off-the-shelf software applications, system products or components for them, and software realization services, such as software engineering services, platform tailoring and other modification services, and embedded software businesses, and pure application services, such as ASP. These businesses may be either B2C or B2B cases. Emphasis of the practical example of this paper is on the software system engineering for B2B cases.

Very often software industry is not very familiar with generally recognized quality methodology but they have developed and lived with their own dedicated procedures and methods. Neither in the development of general quality methodologies the needs of the software industry have been strongly under consideration. This may cause problems when integrating software elements into larger system products. In fact, in practice software is always a part of some bigger entity, and nowadays almost all products may include software modules.

The product issues of software companies have been considered typically in practice and in research studies in an inadequate way. Therefore it is better to go back to the basics. According to the standard vocabulary and definition of the recognized ISO 9000:2000 standard a product as a concept is in general "a result of a process" to be delivered from the supplier to the customer (see figure 1). This definition of a product is valid for all kinds of businesses. Services are nowadays the most important products or parts of the products of any company including software industry. In addition to services, those companies may produce also goods. A service may consist of human and mechanic (automatic) service elements. Thus, also a software company is factually and primarily a service company.

Understanding the concept of service has proved to be difficult in practice. According to the standard definition of ISO 9000 for service-concept, 'service' refers to the result of a company's actions (processes) to the customer, who also participates in this result through his or her own actions. The action itself does not constitute a service, but a service is rather a more permanent result (e.g. the memorable experience produced by a travel agency) which the customer retains even after the activity ends.


Fig. 1. Product is the linking item between parties of a business connection

Software industry is very strongly a knowledge-based business. Knowledge is the major element in all products (both in goods and services) and in the business processes of a software company. Therefore this context requires a clear understanding of knowledge in general and in particular related to the product concept.

In general the concept of knowledge may be understood in many different ways. It has been considered deeply e.g. by many recognized philosophers during centuries. The pragmatic knowledge-concept is suitable for business purposes. It implies that knowledge means a belief on the nature of some item relevant to a business context. As a consequence of genuine knowledge one can act in a new meaningful way. Knowledge is a real thing only if it is tested by an action and thus changed into a useful activity. In that way also the importance of knowledge is emphasized as a major feature of a product. Thus, knowledge can never be objective.

Knowledge can never exist as such but it has always some kind of "carrier". Examples of the different types of knowledge and its knowledge-carrier include:
- fact - phenomenon, activity, process
- data - measurement or data acquisition network
- information, explicit knowledge - information file or data base, report, procedure document, book
- tacit knowledge - person, expert system
- wisdom - community, mankind

It is not meaningful to talk about a particular knowledge or information product. Knowledge and information exist always embedded with their carriers, and in fact, all products (goods and services) always consist of some kind of information. As examples one may mention a disc with information or software program, IT system with business information, quality records on intranet pages, conference paper, consulting service of an expert, skills of a professional at work, etc. Products of the software industry benefit software and electronic digital technologies for knowledge and information business. Thus, as the carrier always has a crucial role and effect in the provision of knowledge and information, the knowledge-product can always be restored to the consideration of traditional goods and services or their combinations. Knowledge and information are inherent characteristics of any product.

Quality of a software related product

When considering the quality of a product, also knowledge and information should be considered together with the major parts of the product (goods and services) taking into account the purpose, users and usage environments of the product. Neither here there are any fundamental differences between the products of software industry and the other business branches. The differences are due to the different technologies. Common general principles and practices are needed because nowadays many different technologies intermingle in the products. Therefore the standard definition of quality-concept of the ISO 9000:2000 is very relevant and useful also for software related products. Thus, product-quality means the degree to which the set of inherent characteristics of the product fulfils the requirements of all interested parties (especially the users) of the product. Requirements consist of needs or expectations that are stated, generally implied or obligatory. Satisfaction follows from the benefits or added-value to the user of the product. Customer value is based on the three major product elements (goods, human service, and mechanistic or automatic service - see figure 1) and their overall characteristics and performance. Depending on the composition of a product, the different elements have different contribution to the customer value (see figure 2).


Fig. 2. Added-value of a product to a customer. All kinds of products can be presented as points within the tringle.

For handling product-quality the characteristics of the product should be considered comprehensively taking into account the product as a whole and its all characteristics. Systematically the characteristics of any product may be categorized according to international standard principles as follows:
- "technical" performance
- operability (easy to use)
- serveability (including product dependability)
- safety
- esthetic performance
- ethical characteristics
- price

This is a general grouping of the high-level product-properties, and from this one can approach to more detailed definitions according to the needs of particular cases. All these characteristics may contain information and knowledge and can be realized by goods or services based on software technology. However, there is no general standardized systematical and detailed concept-hierarchy for the characteristics applicable for all products. Also for different expertise areas there have been developed different specialized systems to describe particular product performance. One example is the terminology of information security that is very essential in many software-related ICT products. Information security performance can be understood as a sub-group in the above mentioned product performance structure and typically it consists of integrity, dependability and confidentiality. Especially important characteristics that relate to the networked digital ICT services include authenticity and authority performance.

Prof. Kano's model is very recognized for taking into account customers' needs and expectations when designing product characteristics aiming at customers' satisfaction. According to that model products have the following three different kinds of characteristics or factors regarding to their effects to the customers' satisfaction: (see figure 3):
- Dissatisfier or must-be characteristics
- Satisfier characteristics
- Delighter or attractive characteristics


Fig. 3. Creating customer's satisfactions through different kinds of product characteristics (Kano's model)

These view-points are very relevant for all software-related products, too. However, all product-features also influence to each other. E.g. easiness to use the product is always linked to the information security features of the product.

Product-quality is created when product features are designed during the product development. In the specification phase there should be in use a methodology that takes into account Kano's satisfaction phenomena based on the information from customers' needs and expectations. When considering quality of the product it is essential in relationship to the performance characteristics to know (to agree) what is good (acceptable) and what is not good (not acceptable). In this context nonconformity (cf. ISO 9000:2000) is defined as non-fulfilment of a requirement and defect as non-fulfilment related to an intended use or specified use. There is very often lack of clarity in these important concepts. Thus, nonconformity relates to the stated requirements of the customer and defect to perceptions from the usage of the product. According to the general terminology non-fulfilments may be critical, major, or minor. Managing fulfilment of the requirements requires consistent action within the product supplier. Normal recognized practices of quality management and quality assurance may be used also in software businesses.

There should be a clear understanding of the fundamental difference between two concepts, "quality" and "grade". Before starting any product development project and before establishing product requirements one must have a clear decision on the grade of the product performance. Grade implies the chosen category or rank of performance relevant to the needs of the focused market segment (cf. ISO 9000:2000).

The application case: eQuality portal of the "Killer grade"

For getting practical experiences, the general principles presented above in this paper have been applied in an e-business application for a B2B case. The e-Quality Portal is a cutting-edge gateway to quality-related business reality for enhancing quality awareness, improved use of expertise, performance management and interested party confidence. It was initiated as joint venture of Sonera Corporation seeing the importance to provide a generic solution for the units of its business community and Finnevo Ltd being interested to satisfy the similar needs in the market. To the portal owner organization the e-Quality Postal is a software engineering product and to the end users (members of the portal organization and its interested parties) the Portal provides automatic quality management and quality assurance services.

Targeted grade of performance of the e-Quality Portal was to create a killer application to enable to bring about a disruptive and regenerating improvement compared with the following sustaining quality management and quality assurance practices:
- Conventional poserish activities of a kind of service provided by quality managers
- "Quality System" as a distinct system with inadequate integration with business management to aim at quality of management
- Quality Manual as a distinct collection of disciplinary written procedure etc. documents, which are typically more harmful than useful or then forgotten to bookshelves for auditors of certifying bodies
- Third Party Certificate as a piece of paper with the purpose to end interaction instead of promoting to confidence by creating discussions with customer.

The biggest challenge for the e-quality Postal is the poor use of business related knowledge and information that may appear in many forms (see figure 4). Knowledge may be missing in general, or just internally. It may be unused because the needed tacit or relevant explicit knowledge is not available or accessible at the moment of truth or is not in a useful form. It may be used but not appropriately or at opportune time and place, or it may be misused. As we see, a greater challenge than to stretch the usefulness of explicit knowledge, information and data to its extreme is to bring about a radical improvement of utilization of tacit knowledge and information. This is a strong strive for eliminating "tacit ignorance" (Ref. H. Haapio).

Fig. 4. Challenge of the e-Quality Portal to enhance the effectiveness and efficiency of the use of knowledge and information

Surveying and analyzing the requirements of the customer for an innovative application

Product quality refers to how well product features correspond to the requirements. This must create value to customer and generate customer satisfaction. The innovation called for a successful killer solution satisfies even latent needs and poorly articulated requirements. Quality of innovation is determined before product development by the creative use of profound knowledge of the poorly preventable problems brought on by conventional practices. During product development this calls for eliminating risks of eventually inappropriate assumptions by effective investigations of potential customer requirements and simulative validation of preliminary solutions. These activities can be concurrent with determination of such product features, which are needed for rapid acceptance and realization of breakthrough impacts.

The concept of e-Quality Portal and its potential features and related relevant factors based on profound knowledge of substance area were generated. After that prof. Kano´s approach was used to draw conclusions of the prioritized elements to be included in the requirement specification. Conclusions were drawn about the potential features regarding to their prioritized
- prevention potential of the customer dissatisfaction
- generation potential of the customer satisfaction
- potential to remain customer indifferent towards them

Relevant indexes were calculated for these based on the Kano-survey results of found factor category hits. The factor categories are: M = "must be" factor, S = "satisfier", D = "delighter", I = indifference factor, R = reverse factor, and C = contradictory factor. First each potentially relevant characteristics, feature and attribute of the e-Quality Portal was presented to the interviewees by stating both a) that the feature is functional and b) that it is dysfuntional. Interviewees showed their attitudes towards these application performance statements by responding with one of the alternative expressions:
- I like it
- It is expected to be that way
- I don´t feel anything
- There is no other choice
- I don´t like it

For instance one of the potential features was that "e-Quality Portal enables use of location-based information". Based on the survey 40 % of hits was in favor of this factor being classified as S (satisfier), 20 %-portions were in favor of D (delighter), I (indifferent) and that the dysfunctional feature is a must-be factor. The calculated index was based 75 % for generation potential of the customer satisfaction, 50 % potential for customer dissatisfaction and 25 % for remaining customer indifferent. This resulted to leave this feature with rather low priority (the 4th of 6 priority classes). However, the need to provide location-based services, enabling applications to take a device´s location into account was stated as one of the technical requirements. (This decision reflected the interest to leave this feature to be a part of marketing mix regarding to the willingness-to-pay of targeted segments.) So called Control Module was specified as a part of the Content-Related Static Portal Logic. That is for the automatic reasoning for operations and is needed to ensure that a user is supported and alerted appropriately in operations according to the use cases (eventually depending on authorization and personalization for as well as location of the user). A software interface requirement was as an example that the e-Quality Portal can be in interaction with Corporation's Positioning Service to define the location of a mobile user.

Product characteristics and the brand characterization

The general systematic hierarchy of the product characteristics described above was used in the requirement specification of the e-Quality Portal. The most essential specified characteristics of the e-Quality Portal product include the following items:
- Technical performance (cashing succeeds): Context and business events of e-Quality Portal in intranet, extranet and Internet, software interfaces, and documentation
- Operability (easy and nice operation): Ease of use, ease of learning, operational performance characteristics
- Serveability (accessibility: access is available, and retainability: as long as needed): Quantitative sufficiency (capacity available), dependability: reliability performance (no defects), maintainability performance (defects can be eliminated): maintainability characteristics, maintainability of contents, maintainability of personalizations, maintainability of tailorings, maintainability of customizations, and maintenance support performance (organizational support available)
- Environmental compatibility (environment does not disturb cashing)
- Safety (no hazards)
- Aesthetic (beautiful): Brand, style and outlook, balance
- Ethical (good): Cultural and political requirements, legal requirements
- Price (win / win is realized): Investment and operating costs, monetary expenditures and non-monetary sacrifices

In addition to these characteristics also several important multidimensional performance characteristics were specified including security (accuracy, availability, confidentiality, authenticity, and authority), and portability.

Brand outcome of the e-Quality Portal was based on the requirement survey. In generating customer satisfaction one must excel customer expectations appropriately. The base of expectations is the brand of the product. As a result of the survey was the conclusion of the brand value statement of e-Quality Portal: "factual quality anywhere anytime" based on the brand authority: "a cutting-edge gateway connecting us to everything and everybody we need to excel in quality-related business reality ". As the rational part of its brand personality it was emphasized: "assuring, knowledgeable, helpful, 'killer application'" and as the emotional part "clear, trustable, smart, disruptive way to improvement". The benefits are: "more gain with less pain" as gain increase: new type of value-added experience and breakthrough options and as pain decrease: ease, cost reductions. The brand service is: "support, facilitation, sharing, learning, collaboration, improvement".

Conclusions

Experiences behind this paper prove that generally recognized quality management and quality assurance principles and methodology may be very useful also in software-related businesses and for considering quality of their products in a professional way. This is also beneficial when integrating software modules in large system products. Naturally in the context of software technology also specialized quality methodology is needed. Key issue is the consistency with the different methods used.

Product issues are very essential topics when considering quality of software business connections. Products should be understood and handled in a broad sense including both goods, and human and automatic services. Software businesses are primarily service organizations.

e-Quality Portal is a challenging product to demonstrate the practical use of recognized quality methodology in the business areas of software system design and engineering, and specialized automatic service for e-business.

References

This paper was published in:
Kontio J., Conradi R (Editors): Software Quality ECSQ 2002 Proceedings, Springer Verlag, Berlin Heidelberg 2002

Other references

1. Hannula M, Järvelin A-M., Seppä M. (Editors): AeBR 2001, Frontiers of e-Business Research 2001, Proceedings: Anttila J., Vakkuri J.: Business integrated e-quality, Tampere University of Technology and University of Tampere, Tampere 2002
2. Anttila J., Vakkuri. J: Good Better Best, Sonera Corporation, Helsinki (2000)
3. Anttila J., Vakkuri. J: ISO 9000 for the Creative Leader, Sonera Corporation, Helsinki (2001)
4. Anttila J.: www.QualityIntegration.biz: "Internet pages for the business integrated quality approach", Sonera Corporation, 2001
5. International Standardization Organization: ISO 9000. Quality Management Systems. Fundamentals and Vocabulary, ISO, Geneve (2000)
6. Shiba S, Graham A., Walden D.: A new American TQM, Center for Quality Management, Cambridge MA (1993)
7. Downes L., Mui C.: Unleashing the Killer App, Harvard Business School Press, Boston (2000)

Acknowledgements

The sustained cooperation with Mr. Jorma Vakkuri, Finnevo Ltd., has significantly influenced many views and details of this paper. Many fruitful discussions and debates with him are very much acknowledged and appreciated.

[This text was presented as a conference paper at the Software Quality ECSQ conference in Helsinki, Finland 2002]