This is the author's cut of an article that originally appeared on pages 14-17 of "The Quality Magazine" February 2000 Vol.9 Num.1, the official publication of Australian Quality Council & Quality Society of Australasia.

Quality and Cyberspace

When I was initially approached to write something for this issue, I followed my usual practice of jumping on the net (internet) to see what the standard of play was. I flabbergasted to stumble across more poorly constructed web-sites on subject 'Quality' (of all things), in one hour than I would normally expect to see in a month of web-surfing. But on reflection, this not at all that surprising.

This article will concentrate on Quality concerns for presentations in cyberspace as a vital prerequisite for effective e-commerce. Your public-image in cyberspace can be no-more effective, attractive and enticing than the quality of your web-site. It is highly unlike that a visitor will purchase anything, or come back for a return peek if your web-pages are buggy, messy, slow or obscure. For constraints of space, but most significantly a rapidly changing topic, this article will be only a broad-brush sketch with some web-links at the end for a more timely investigations. 

Industrial Quality's Proud History 

The Quality movement has a proud history of, analyzing the production process then developing methods and techniques to improve, both the processes' efficiency and outcomes. From the works of forgotten pioneers like R.A. Fisher and Walter Shewhart, to the giants of Dr W. Edward Deming and Dr. Joseph M. Juran, doing the work of 'Quality' has been about, identifying concerns, then some feedback process to track progress towards gaining improvements. Aesthetic or Transcendent definitions of Quality, or Metaphysics of Quality where seen as having no relevance to the real world. Benchmarking, Quality Assurance (QA), Customer Satisfaction, Quality Control  (QC), Continuous Improvement, Software Quality Management Systems (SQMS), Total Quality Management (TQM) {also know as Total Quality Control (TQC)}, provided all the required certainty, working particularly well when one is dealing with engineering tolerances, conventional services and traditional product development cycles. 

HTML the Flawed Revolution

Much hyperbole been bandied about of the dramatic developments of the internet, the web, and cyberspace. But previous technological innovation like the printing press, steam power and the industrial revolution, photography, man-powered flight, radio, and petrol driven automobiles have all in there time caste disruptive ripples across societies complacency. The sociological impact of any revolution is a consequence of things changing faster than people are equipped or prepared for.

What many do-not realize is despite all the excitement the web engenders, the current manifestation has some fundamental design flaws that become rapidly obvious once any major development is to be undertaken, or maintained for any length of time. As far back as 1965 Ted Nelson coined the concept of hypertext and academic research has percolated along since then, Jakob Nielsen's work being noteworthy from a quality perspective. Ted Nelson's visionary system 'Xanadu' was always a little bit beyond feasible, but as a thought-experiment it did highlight a number of characteristics that should be considered for any large hypertext system such as ;- low-level 'typed' linking, temporal controls, copyright attribution, along with most of the features of the web that we have come to love. 

HTTP (HyperText Transfer Protocol) and HTML (HyperText Markup Language) were initial developed to allow documents to be shared between geographical dispersed nodes on a 'discrete medium-scale' computer network. That html raged across the internet like a bush-fire, transforming the net into the World Wide Web (WWW) is a confirmation of the html's utilitarianism not html's ultimate suitability for the job, or its' quality. 

Most internet-surfers are familiar with 'Error 404' or broken links, like the flashing oil-warning light on a cars dashboard the 404 is a warning that all is not well with the web yet. Xanadu's circumvented the broken-link issue by never allowing anything to be deleted from the 'docuverse' (Ted's name for hypertext cyberspace). No-deletion made possible concepts like 'temporal scrolling' allowing the viewer to wind-back the evolution of a document or online-debate. Stricter definitions of hypertext often demand that all links are bi-directional, you can not link to something without the target knowing where the source link comes from. 

For broken links external to your organization not much can be done, other than search-engines which sometimes are helpful in finding a lost target (however even the best don't cover much more than a third of the web). Moreover within your own organization, there are a few alternatives for exterminating embarrassing 404's from your web-site. Problem often begin to occur when you have;- more than one in-house person authoring material for the site, more than one person responsible for managing the web-site and authoring material on it, a tightly linked site much larger than about 20 pages, a change in personnel (internal or external) controlling or authoring the site. Unfortunately because many word-processors will spew html there is tendency among management to underestimate the complexity of authoring and maintaining even a small body of hypertext over any significant period of time. Web-sites like any other software development project require at the very least documentation (never be fooled by the line that html is self-documenting code), if of nothing else, at least a list of what is linked to what! Better still is to add source control system, or even a full blown software quality management system. 

While HTML is an open public standard, beware that many products by market leaders DO NOT generate clean standard html. Just because a page may look great on the authors screen, this is no guarantee that it will look even barely presentable on an outsider visitor's home-machine. Yes one can exhaustively test the page in question on a number of different browsers at different screen resolution, but a better strategy is to restrict authors to pure standard html, then verify the result against the standards approved test suit/sites. If you are not sure how standard your authoring tools are, a quick test (when you are sitting down) is to open your web-page in another authoring package J. 

At the end of the article are listed some sites on standards and design issues, for now a few rules of thumb:- limit any included graphics, animations, sound files and the like to less than 200K each; use percentages instead of fixed units, for table sizes and column widths; avoid frames where-ever possible (along with other conceptual short-comings, they can create copyright liability nightmares); ideally include a hard-coded link to your site's home-page or authors email on each page (this so when a viewer stumbles on your page from a search engine they can find you if they wish). 

Implications of Cyberspace's for Quality.

Now lets move from the nitty-gritty of html to the big picture future. The difference between Cyberspace and traditional production or service undertaking can be characterized along few 'conceptual fault-lines', with the associated Quality Risks.

Speed & Volatility.  

The internet growth and development is happening so fast that the industry has coined the term 'Web-time', the concept that one year of change on the web is equivalent to seven year for any other industry. Quality Risk = pressure for quick fixes, loss of clear content / functional goals amongst the distractions and compromises of how it is to be realized, rapid change hemorrhaging any continuos improvement cycle (particularly when tight coupling occurs between proprietary tools and market niches or the developers skill-set.). 

Instantaneous & International  

Unlike restricted and relative slow dissemination of conventional publishing and advertising channels of print and broadcast mediums, once something is placed on the web it is instantaneously available to anybody any-where in the world with a net connection. Even if the viewer cannot read the language the page was authored in technology like the BabelFish will promptly translate between many European languages on the fly (similar technology is also under development for number of Asian languages). Quality Risk = cultural sensitivity, and international reach of the users native legal system engendering conflicting requirements and additional complexity. 

If you are selling product or services over the net, what is the legal context of the internet in the viewers country? what currency do you denominate your charges and fees in? do your cost include international freight and insurance? what are your warranty obligations in the recipients homeland? 

A Visual / Multi-Dimensional / Multi-media environment.  

While the previous two 'conceptual fault-lines' pose not insignificant challenges for the Quality Systems, they are however still manageable with-in the technique arsenal of TQM. Unfortunately the conceptual fault-line between the physical literally-delineated pre-cyberspace world-view, versus that of a visual virtual chaotic cyberspace, is not so easily surmountable. 

Despites HTML's bias to text, even today much of the web is primarily a visual medium. With the rising waves of Java (Sun's "Write once, run anywhere" programming language), XML (eXtenable Markup Language), and VRML (Virtual Reality Markup Langrage) cyberspace entices to be an all-embracing graphic experience. William Gibson's ( "Neuromancer" 1984 "Count Zero" 1986, "Mona Lisa Overdrive" - 1988 ) and Neal Stephenson's ("Snow Crash" 1992) vision of a shared on-line immersive virtual alternative reality may be an everyday occurrence for many people with-in five years. A few geeks are even today strolling their avatars around 3D virtual plazas pumped across the web from Germany and Japan. 

Lamentably the traditional language of Quality is all but exhausted when encountering the slippery world of visual critique. Transcendental discourses on Quality like Robert M Pirsig's classic 'Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance' (1974) eloquently outlined the problem, but the solution articulated was near meaningless to the non-art public. Thankfully Pirsig himself was not oblivious to the inconclusiveness of his first book, the sequel 'Lila: An Inquiry into Morals' (1991) tackles the ' Metaphysics of Quality' head on. 

'Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance' traces the frustration of a University lecturer Phaedrus as he struggles to teach students of rhetoric about Quality in writing. From the classics Phaedrus demonstrates the supposed rules and metrics that make a work great. Unfortunately no matter how slavishly his student apply these same techniques the results are less than satisfactory, but more distressingly for some the rules become chains as their writing deteriorates. Pirsig then goes on to discuss how Quality transcends the subjective-objective dilemma being neither mind nor matter, but rather the dynamic value source that gives form to the structure of culture. (see the train analogy pages 276-277). 

As a student of sculpture having been taught art by a process of examples, exercises and debate, Pirsig's assertion that Quality transcends measurements and can only be learnt from experience was proffering nothing out of the ordinary. It was not until I encountered theory of Quality Assurance in the software industry did I realize how unorthodox Pirsig views are seen by many Quality practitioners. The Metaphysics of Quality in 'Lila: an Inquiry into Morals' analyzes  how 'Value systems' become foundation and social  mediator to the cultural experience of Quality. Phaedrus  realizing that there are two independent forms of Quality;  Dynamic and Static. (see Lila pages 140-147)

So what has this dry theory got to do with the Quality of a web site? While an understanding of visual quality may be learnt by years of study, it is not just a case of subjective of likes and dislikes. I may not like a painting because the I find the subject distasteful but I can still attest to the quality of the work. Conversely I could adore a work of kitsch but never be foolish enough to argue that it is a piece of great art. All of us learn to speak and write the same way, it becomes second nature. No supervisor would dream of allowing a primary school drop-out to write the companies annual report, but daily many managers entrust the companies public image in the graphic medium of the web to employees who's formal visual education ceased in primary school! 

Unfortunately the aptitudes that make good visual practitioners often seem mutual exclusive to analytical technical skills required to run a reliable web-site. Out-sourcing one or other functions is a solution as long as it is remember both skill-sets are equally critical to a quality web-site. As Phaedrus painful realized just because something can not be directly measured does not make it optional. 

For a detailed discussion of some of the influence on visual quality see 'The Necessity of Art' by Ernst Fischer (1959, reprinted as late as 1986 by Peregrine). Fischer dissects art as Medium, Message and Magic. The concerns of 'Medium' being the technical considerations that can be measured and managed by a conventional Quality Management Systems. Message being the content of the work, what it is trying to say. Fischer's 'Magic' equating to Pirsig's 'Dynamic Quality' with just a dash of 'Static Quality'. 


While cyberspace's tsunami of change may at first be scary, dutifully prepared it promises an exhilarating ride. Despite the vagaries of software suppliers there are solid public standards to test product claims by, and the time-honed discipline of Quality is as important in cyberspace as anywhere it is now applied. Nevertheless the visual metamorphosing of the web, obligates the addition of visually trained workers and appreciation of the Metaphysics of Quality. For the further interested we can be found on the web at http://www.auzgnosis.com with a few vrml samples and other things J.

Reference & Resource.

W3C - the World Wide Web Consortium = http://www.w3.org/

Top Ten Mistakes in Web Design = http://www.nngroup.com/articles/top-10-mistakes-web-design/ 

The Web Standards Project: Fighting for Standards in our Browsers 

= http://www.webstandards.org/

General Resources = http://archive.webstandards.org/mission.html

What are Web standards and why should I use them? = http://www.webstandards.org/learn/faq/l

Campaign for a Non-Browser Specific WWW = http://www.anybrowser.org/campaign/

The SGML/XML Web Page = http://xml.coverpages.org/sgml-xml.html 

Java = http://www.oracle.com/technetwork/java/index.html 

VRML Tutorials, Resources, and Books http://www.whoishostingthis.com/resources/vrml/ 

Xanadu-related Projects = http://www.xanadu.com.au/projects.html 

© 1974 Robert M Pirsig  pub. Corgi Books 

"LILA: An Inquiry Into Morals" © 1991 Robert M Pirsig 
pub. Corgi Books, ISBN 0-552-13894-0 

'THE NECESSITY OF ART: A Marxist Approach' © 1959 Ernest Fisher, 
pub. Penguin / Peregrine books, ISBN 0-14-055151-4 

'THE ART OF COLOUR AND DESIGN' © 1951 Maitland Graves, 
pub. McGraw-Hill Book Co. 


    We will happily do ;-  
          Quality Audits of your website's Aesthetics & Userability (but not functional integrity), before you release your site to the world. 

    Also Shawn can advise on Website Quality issue before your project commences.

    Please email services inquiries, and other requests for information to us.

{Back to Top}

Last updated: Monday 19-September-2016


[about] [Legals] [home] [Sitemap]

This Site is constantly evolving, so please forward comments or questions regarding this site to webmaster:
© Copyright 2000 ~ 2016 W. Shawn Gray,
All rights reserved
 Use of this web site and content from it is subject to our Legal Notice and

Site created AuzGnosis P/L