A quality attribute, in systems engineering, is a non-functional requirement. I think of them as adjectives that describe a system. They’re useful tools.
There are dozens of quality attributes in systems engineering: accessibility, accuracy, durability, flexibility, observability, repeatability, safety, sustainability, testability, upgradeability, usability, vulnerability and so on.
They’re useful tools because they’re the core of discriminator statements, and as such, can help us think about Need-Solution Pairs.
Quality Attributes and Need-Solution Pairs
What if, in the context of a Need-Solution pair (von Hippel and von Krogh (2016)), a solution can have a large number of quality attributes?
When comparing a product to a substitute, you can think of faster, cheaper, and easier. This laptop is faster than that one. It’s cheaper than that one. It’s easier to use than the other one. There’s a wonderful amount of academic literature about how consumers make choice amongst multiple products with different quality attributes, with a popular statistical tool called conjoint analysis. It often very desirable to have a computer that is faster, cheaper, and easier. Sometimes, quality attributes may create tradeoffs. Sometimes, such tradeoff paradoxes are dissolved with quite a bit of creativity and ingenuity.
Entrepreneurs instinctively reduce barriers. One of the dominant patterns is to make something that is expensive and exclusive and render it cheap and popular. Transportation offers some of the most intuitive demonstrations of this. Flight, over the course of fifty years, went from something extremely expensive, to a service that is extraordinarily cheap. The automobile is a product that fell in terms of price and size over just fifty years.
Another major pattern, in software, is to make something that is complex and render it easy enough for anybody to use. One of the best examples of this is the leap in usability from 1992 to 2008. In 1992, you had to be extremely dedicated communicate online. By 2008, people routinely took pictures of their feet with a beach in the background and uploaded it to the Internet with two clicks. Making things easier saves time and increases joy.
Typically, the way that a startup (or pivoting giant) creates an effective substitute is to invent a new technology that creates a quality attribute that is valuable enough for a market segment to pay more. The example that’s most often used to tell this story is about moving dirt and rock. The incumbent in this story was the steam-shovel, and it could move enormous volumes of earth very efficiently. They weren’t very flexible. Some brilliant person or team invents a way to move earth more slowly using a piston. The new technology is more flexible, you can get into tighter places more easily, but it doesn’t move as much dirt as cheaply. And the technology is more expensive all around. But, there was a market segment that was willing to pay for the flexibility, so there was enough margin for that startup to survive, thrive, and gradually bring the cost down. Outside of pharmaceuticals, you see this pattern over and over again.
Previously, I speculated that needs were likely nominal and atomic. Different needs might be more important to different segments. For instance, consider the need to sate thirst. For several thousand market segments, unfortunately, they don’t have water with the quality attribute of cleanliness. Or piped to them for that matter. For other market segments, they have the choice of hundreds of substitutes to sate the need of thirst. Market segments can have multiple needs. The needs themselves don’t seem to nest and branch in the same way that the features of market segments and quality attributes do.
Solution quality attributes can be nominal, ordinal and interval – and can stack. A person might have a need for status and a need for beauty. A solution that has the quality attributes of being beautiful and expensive may sate those needs. This is how physical luxury goods work. Consider the curious behaviour of getting a headshot with a watch showing on the wrist. The individual is letting those who know how expensive the watch is that they can afford that watch. The luxury watch creates both a social signal of belonging, a barrier to access through its price, and, in many cases, luxury watches are pretty to look at. Allegedly, a luxury watch is said to be able to give some indication as to what time it is.
A Note On Technical Innovation
Sometimes people are intentional in discovering new ways to create new quality attributes on existing products, and sometimes, new technologies can be discovered unintentionally to add quality attributes. Right now, there are deliberate efforts to make energy generation cleaner, to make weapons deadlier, and to make technology easier.
And, there are deliberate efforts to combine different technologies together to add quality attributes to existing and substitute products.
Knowledge is distributed across humanity in a very diffuse way. It’s kind of astounding, when you really think about it, just how diffuse it is. It can take a long time for somebody to make the connection between the depth at which to plant groundnuts in Kenya and the amount of water runs off different soil types in Botswana – and to synthesize any sort of an insight that would help everybody who grows groundnuts. People can’t possibly know everything they don’t know, little though have the means to make the connections necessary to make realize and apply the technology.
The past 300 years have been quite a ride. More knowledge fuels more opportunities for connections, more combinations of technologies, and more value, at seemingly, an ever faster rate. Much of it is incremental. Sometimes a generation of scientists come up with a scientific revolution. It’s quite amazing what has happened in such a short period of time.
In the context of need-solution pair, a quality attribute is an adjective that describes the solution.
They have the potential to be differentiation points in comparison to an existing solution. Different markets value different quality attributes differently. As such, there should be some care in identifying and highlighting different quality attributes to different market segments.
von Hippel, E., & Von Krogh, G. (2016). Crossroads—Identifying viable “need–solution pairs”: Problem solving without problem formulation. Organization Science, 27(1), 207-221.
von Hippel, E., & Kaulartz, S. (2021). Next-generation consumer innovation search: Identifying early-stage need-solution pairs on the web. Research Policy, 50(8), 104056.