Quality Metrics 101: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

metric – [me-trik] – (noun) a standard for measuring or evaluating something

(Courtesy of dictionary.com)

When developing software, metrics can be a good way to track progress and evaluate quality. Managers typically love them because they provide insights that could otherwise be hard to see. Come on, who doesn’t love pretty charts with rainbow colors? However, gathering metrics is not easy, especially for quality. Some metrics are downright useless, and others encourage bad behavior when used improperly. It is far more important to focus on the most important aspects of quality than to blindly promulgate numbers. This article will cover quality metrics in depth, giving guidance on what quality aspects matter most and how they can be measured.

What are Quality Metrics?

Quality is the degree of a feature’s excellence. Quality metrics attempt to impartially measure a feature’s excellence. The word “attempt” is notable – quality is inherently relative, and metrics can sometimes be subjective. Take pizza as an example: How would the quality of a pizza be measured? One method could be to analyze the freshness and nutritious value of the ingredients, but, Pizza Hut notoriously fought Papa John’s Pizza over the assertion that better ingredients make better pizza. Another method could be to analyze the cooking process, like bake time or the order of toppings, but that would be better for identifying carelessness than quality. The delivery process could also be considered, like Domino’s delivery robots, but that evaluates customer service and not the pizza itself.  Ultimately, what matters are the taste and the visual appearance, which are totally subjective to the consumer. Surveys are unreliable. Taste tests have limited selection. Appearance is an art, not a science. Each of these metrics gives a glimpse into quality but does not fully reveal what actually makes a “good” pizza. Together, though, they provide a reasonable picture when the desired metrics are gathered well.

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Is that really high quality pizza? Well, what aspects of quality are we measuring? We won’t get a perfect picture of quality from metrics, but we can get a rough idea. Software quality metrics work the same way.

Software Quality

In software, there are three primary types of quality metrics:

  1. Test Quality
    • How effective are tests at enforcing high quality standards?
    • Examples: code coverage, test failure reasons.
  2. Process Quality
    • How effective are processes at delivering good features?
    • Examples: time to fix broken builds, time to discover bugs.
  3. Product Quality
    • How good is the software product?
    • Examples: test failure rate, up-time, customer satisfaction.

The main purpose of software quality metrics is to validate successes and find areas for improvement in the development process. Metrics expose problems like gaps in coverage or slow feedback loops so that a team knows what to improve. They are meant to be informative but not punitive – they should simply report accurate data. Don’t shoot the messenger! For example, if the test failure rate is high, fix the bugs instead of blaming each other.

However, be warned by W. Edwards Deming‘s red bead experiment: Quality cannot be inspected into a product – it must be built in from the beginning! Metrics alone cannot solve problems – they can merely expose them. It is up to the development team to affect the proper change based on what metrics reveal. Awareness is useless without action. And action should ultimately lead to better features, faster delivery, and higher profits.

Choosing Quality Metrics

Metrics are nothing but tools to improve aspects of quality. Not every job needs the full toolbox! Always pick the quality aspect first, and then find the right measuring stick. Don’t just pick some metrics that others say are good. For example, if build stability is the quality aspect that is deemed important (and it should be), then the metric to track it could be the average time to fix a build after it is broken.

The best process for choosing quality metrics is:

  1. Identify a quality aspect that adds value.
  2. Decide if the aspect is worth measuring.
  3. Determine the desired state for that aspect.
  4. Derive the best way to measure progress toward the desired state impartially.
  5. Implement the metric gathering, storage, and analysis.
  6. Revisit the metric periodically to assert its value.
  7. Stop gathering the metric when it ceases to provide value.

Keep in mind that metrics have a cost: they must be gathered, stored, and analyzed. That’s why it’s important to pick the quality aspects that matter most.

This Series

The articles in this series will cover each of the quality metric types in detail. Each will list major quality aspects with meaningful metrics to track them and advice on how to use them. Remember, metrics should be constructive and not destructive.

 

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