Building a quality culture: Is it quality assurance or quality awareness?

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5 minute read

If you ask testers what does QA stand for most are likely to say its Quality Assurance and is typically described as providing confidence that some quality criteria will be fulfilled. Some people in the testing community believe that it’s actually Quality Awareness*. The thinking goes how can tester assure the quality of something if they never built it in the first place? All they can do is make your team aware of the quality. I agree with both explanations and believe that they are different sides of the same quality coin.

Read on to see what this means for testers and how it’s a useful to consider both in teams.

*I’ve also heard Quality Advocate and my favourite Question Askers, both fit this model of Quality Awareness.

Firstly some definitions:

What is Quality?

Quality is value to someone – Gerald Winberg

But who is that someone and what does value mean?

From the Lenses of quality on who that someone is:

…that someone could be their Products Owners (PO), the organisation they work for, the team they work with and their end users and all these groups of people could have very different views on what value means to them and even contradicting in some cases.

Again from the same post on what value is:

Each of these groups of people view quality with a different lens therefore see the same system differently to one another. We as testers should help our teams to see quality through these different lenses by helping them identify these groups and what their measures of quality are.

Simply put value will depend on the viewpoint of the person. Identify whats viewpoint that person sees the product/system through then you’re halfway there to working out what’s valuable to that person. If you take this a step further and see what incentives drive that persons viewpoint then you might identify whats valuable to them too. But thats not as easy as it sounds.

For any given team there are multiple members and stakeholders therefore they are likely to be a number of unique and overlapping quality attributes too. Identifying the key ones for each cohort of people is a valuable exercise for any team. It might help explain why some people are never happy no matter what you deliver.

What is Quality Assurance?

Firstly what does assurance mean from the Oxford dictionary:

a statement that something will certainly be true or will certainly happen, particularly when there has been doubt about it

One way to think about assurance is that it’s a promise that an outcome will happen so as to give others confidence. In this case it’s quality and as mentioned earlier quality means value to someone. Therefore QA or Quality Assurance means providing confidence in the quality of the product to stakeholders. This it is about certainty that an outcome will happen not a guarantee. You are saying that best efforts will be made and this is an assurances in making that happen.

What is Quality Awareness?

What does awareness mean from the Oxford dictionary:

knowing something; knowing that something exists and is important

interest in and concern about a particular situation or area of interest

This would lead to QA or Quality Awareness to be a person who is interested in quality (value), understands its importance and has knowledge about the quality of a product or system. To take this a step further someone who works in Quality Awareness understands that quality is value to someone, knows who those people are, what viewpoints they hold and possibly what incentives drive those views. They are then able to apply this knowledge to the system and subsequently increases their teams awareness of overall system quality. Essentially Quality Awareness is about building awareness of what quality is in a team, how it is affected and who it matters too.

Quality Awareness sits at the intersection of the team that produces the system, the domain in which the system operates in and users of the system.

Two sides of the same coin

Both are focused on quality but one is about improving the teams understanding of what quality means for their stakeholders. While the other is focused on maintaining (and hopefully improving) the quality of the product.

In this scenario Quality Awareness can improve Quality Assurance by giving it the metrics with which quality is being assessed on. In this model Quality Assurance can actually fulfil it’s job of providing confidence that the quality of the product is being upheld. Why, because it is taking into account who the stakeholders are and what is valuable to them. Then converting that value into a measurable metric which the engineering team can either:

  1. assess themselves against to make sure they are doing what they said they would do or
  2. provide the stakeholders the metrics to improve their confidence that not only is the engineering team doing their job but maintaining and perhaps even improving it.

The thing to keep in mind is not all quality values can be converted into an easy to measure metric. You can use proxy measures to give you an idea but some measures are always inherently subjective. On top of the this the systems we build are interdependent on other systems which are out of our control and can affect the quality of our systems. Therefore techniques such as exploratory testing can be very beneficial as it can help build a fuller awareness of what quality means for your product.

Back to Quality Assurance?

Does this mean we should go back to using QA again and naming ourselves the QA Team? No, we’ve come a long way in some areas of our industry and going back to QA teams might bring back all those old problems. Such as test team silos, testers being the gatekeepers and why didn’t we catch that bug?

How is this helpful?

Where this can be useful is giving teams another lens through which to look at their testing approach and think is this heading towards building assurance of quality or is this about raising awareness of quality. By separating out into these two camps you can see the value it’s actually going to bring and if its worth the investment. It might also help clear up who should be doing what and when.

Using this model of awareness and assurance could be helpful for testers trying to figuring out what it is that they want to do with their careers. Do you want to learn more about building team confidence in quality through test automation (Quality Assurance) or building a quality culture within teams (Quality Awareness)?

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