Monday, February 24, 2014

In Search of Awesome: The Four Types of Quality

I am republishing here a blog post I originally published at DigitalRelevance back on February 6. I'm gearing up for my presentation at the American Copy Editor's Society's annual conference at the end of March, and a discussion of quality will certainly play a role in that presentation.

How do you judge quality, both of your own creations and in what you find from others? Do you consciously hold your own work to a higher (or, Cthulhu forbid, lower) standard than the work of others, or do you expect others' work to live up to your own skills?

Here's the post:

Here at DigitalRelevance, we think (and write) a lot about quality. About creating things of such high quality as to be irresistible. High-quality work is certainly an admirable pursuit, and though we — that’s the royal we, the human race — like to think we know quality when we see it, rarely do we stop to ponder what true quality really is.

In manufacturing, quality is gauged simply enough — how close does an item come to being completely free of defects? The quality of creative content, though, is less concrete because we have no ideal piece of content against which to gauge our creations. That’s in large part because there isn’t just one type of quality; there are (at least) four.

In search of awesome...Executional Quality

Executional quality is the type of quality that can be raised through ongoing education and practice, upgraded equipment or a new, powerful app. You might know it better as editorial quality or graphic quality, high-quality sound engineering or cinematography, or whatever your area of expertise.
Executional quality is the easiest type of quality to quantify — especially when it’s lacking. Misspelled or misused words, broken links and overexposed images jump out at us as errors. Executional quality is what we mean by “doing your job well” and, for many, is unfortunately the primary focus of employers as they review their employees’ work.

Factual Quality

Whether or not you get your facts straight is an obvious-enough measure of quality, but real factual quality goes beyond that. You need more than just facts; you need the right ones.

A piece of content that is of high quality in every other way but consists primarily of common knowledge and common sense isn’t going to make anyone do the happy dance. A quality piece of content gives the audience something valuable they didn’t have before.


There’s a good reason someone would pay $58.4 million for a Jackson Pollock canvas but few would pay him a dime to paint a house: What he did with paint simply isn’t suitable for a home’s exterior.

So it is with everything we create. High-quality work is designed around where it will go and who it’s for.

It’s all about the audience. Ignore your audience and you risk creating something that is either too complex to be used or too simplistic to be useful (or worse: so simplistic that it’s insulting). In either case, you end up with something that purports to meet the needs of an audience but doesn’t.

Emotional quality

Gauging the emotional quality of a piece of content begins by answering the question, “Why am I creating this?” If your answer doesn’t in some way involve your audience, you will never create something with true emotional quality.

Your purpose is where you want to go; your audience is who you want to guide there. And not only do you have to show them the way, you have to convince them that they want to go there in the first place.

Take this post, for example. My ultimate, pie-in-the-sky goal for posts like this is to help create a crap-free Internet. I hope not only to give you, dear reader, new skills and insights that you can apply to your content to lower its craposity (that is, to raise its quality), but to prove that you have it within you to create something amazing. To show your limits for what they truly are — only your doubts and fears. To inspire you to expect more from yourself and to never accept “good enough.”

How do I do that, and how can you? By tapping into our shared humanity to try to get you to feel the way I feel. By sharing my passion freely and openly, exposing myself so that you can see that we are the same.

We’re often reminded that blog posts and other online content should include an explicit call to action. Content with high emotional quality creates an implicit call to action. It makes an audience want to do something, without being told.

The Ultimate High-Quality Content

An individual creation can certainly concentrate on a single type of quality, and it’s easy enough to find mediocre content that does so. But if you examine the most amazing, mind-blowing, thought-provoking creations you can find — from a TED talk to a photograph — you’ll discover that they excel in all four types of quality.

Think about these ideas while you work, and you’ll find that you can create content that exceeds even your own expectations.

Now go make something that’s awesome. And then make it even better.