Quality on the Web: Who Cares?

By Caroline Rose
September 1997

Let's face it: The Q-word puts many (if not most) of us to sleep. If you work for a large company, you've no doubt been subjected to boring presentations on the subject of quality and encouraged to adopt some vague process to help bring it about. Real programmers don't think about quality; they just do it, right? Well, I'm going to talk about quality, and if you can stay awake till the end of this editorial, I don't think you'll be disappointed. I'll keep it short and to the point, with practical advice that even the most hardened among you might find valuable.

But first, by way of introduction, I should point out that I'm not the usual author of this column. View Source Editor Paul Dreyfus asked me to fill in while he was on vacation. Paul and I used to work together at Apple, where I was the editor of develop, The Apple Technical Journal, and earlier had written much of Inside Macintosh, the original Macintosh developer documentation.

Since I've always been known to be a bit of a nut about quality, and recently I've been editing articles for View Source, Paul naturally suggested that I write about editorial quality on the Web. At first I resisted; after all, I've been pontificating on that subject ever since I first laid eyes on the Web, and I've usually been met with either blank stares of boredom or sheer disbelief that I think such a thing matters. But then I gave some thought to whether anything has changed that could or should make Internet developers and content providers care more about this problem today -- and I managed to come up with a few things that just might remove that glaze from your eyes. Or, if in your case I'm preaching to the converted, I've got some suggestions that might help improve your site even more.

In the early days of the Web, it was mostly geeks checking out other geeks, whereas nowadays Mom and Pop are surfing around in increasing numbers. For many of them, this is their first exposure to computers, the Web and e-mail being what finally took them over the scary edge into this new world. These people are not like those of you who have been there from the beginning and who, giddy with the freedom and immediacy that the Web offers, have been tolerant of the many glitches inherent in such an environment. They're used to the old, physical world, where typos, poor grammar, and bad layout are annoyances and worse -- signs of poor quality at a deeper level. If the problems get too bad, extending for example to links that don't work, your site and perhaps the Web in general may lose these visitors forever.

If you accept the premise that your audience is widening -- and your competition increasing -- you might just be willing to admit that applying a bit of polish to your content can't hurt. But many of you argue that you have neither the time nor the resources to do such polishing. Imagine if you will that you're preparing for an important job interview or getting ready for a hot first date. Would you consider grabbing some smelly old clothes out of the hamper or, say, dispensing with all that time-consuming personal hygiene? Why is it that many people can understand the importance of an investment like that but not one that will make their professional appearance on the Web give a good first impression?

Maybe you're among those who say things like, as I was sometimes told when I tried to enforce a high quality standard as the editor of develop, "No one is going to cancel their subscription because of typos," or "People just need the information." I think it's more subtle than that, like those decisions about who to call back for a second interview or date. And anyway, carelessness with lesser details breeds carelessness in more important areas, which may well cause customer confusion or cancellations. If you brush over minor language errors in what you write, you're not nearly as likely to recognize when you're obfuscating or misrepresenting the points you're trying to make.

I see it as a continuum, beginning with typos and progressing to things that just plain don't work. As Web content moves along its continuum from text and graphics to buttons and forms to more complex application-like interactions, the dividing line becomes blurred, and your relegating any part of it into the "Unimportant" bin becomes a dangerous practice -- not as far off as you might think from leaving bugs in your code. My advice to you: Debug everything.

Be warned that carrying out this advice will require something else that makes a lot of eyes glaze over: process. It's as simple as jotting down the steps you need to take to get the desired outcome, planning according to how long each one takes, and following these steps again the next time you need them. It's not unlike programming. Planning yourself out of the possibility of editing and review (or doing no planning at all, which amounts to the same thing) makes about as much sense to me as leaving a couple of lines out of your code. The resulting "bug" is not the kind that causes an immediate crash, but the insidious kind that does its damage slowly over time.

Even if you do spare the time and resources to have your content edited and reviewed, don't stop there. As long as it's posted, think of it as "live." Make periodic checks over everything. You never know what can change out from under you. This will not take a qualified person much time -- and almost anyone is more qualified than you, because you're probably too familiar with your own site. You'll tend not to check things that you "know" are OK, and if you do check everything you won't see all the problems. No matter how hard you try, you'll always wear blinders when it comes to looking at your own work.

Finally, don't take my word for whether anyone cares about quality on the Web; just ask. Encourage visitors to your site to give you feedback on any and all aspects of their experience using it. This is a resource that in my experience isn't being fully mined. Make it painfully obvious to your users how they can provide such feedback. (Think of those "How's my driving?" bumper stickers.) You would do well to cultivate relationships with users who are willing to play this important part in the development and refinement of your site.

Enough said; I promised to keep it short. If you've read this far, I encourage you to drop me a line with your own observations about why you care or don't care about quality on the Web. Are people with quality-checking skills like mine becoming obsolete in this industry? You decide. (Don't worry, I'm planning on an early retirement anyway.)

Caroline Rose, View Source Staff Editor