What Quality is—and isn't

What will you see when you look "under the hood" of the product you are designing?

It’s time to order up a new, custom-built truck. I live on the dry, sunny, eastern side of Washington state, at the end of a long, winding gravel road high up in the Cascade Mountains near the Canadian border. The road is as rugged as they come. It punishes vehicles—to the point at which their parts fall off onto the roadway.

My old truck held up to such mistreatment for 10 years before falling prey to a pair of teenage daughters. They added whole new dimensions of deterioration, including a permanent odor of perfume, cigarette burns, and dents and gashes on all four sides—all eliciting the same plaintive defense: “It wasn’t me, Daddy!”

My new truck will need a manual four-wheel-drive transmission—something hairy with a bristling array of sticks and levers at floor level. Those features should protect it from further teenage abuse because the girls won’t have a clue how to drive it.

The new truck will need a reliable engine. The Cummins 4BT turbocharged diesel looks good. With only four cylinders, this low-rpm, multifuel workhorse is not going to win any drag races, but it’s not made for them. It’s made to just keeping spinning reliably for a long time. It’s tough. With a proper air intake, this baby can run underwater.

What’s next on my list of requirements? No computers: A purely mechanical device suits me just fine. I know too much about computers to think that a vehicle becomes more reliable when you add electronics. It doesn’t. It becomes a rolling, dirt-ingesting, overheating pile of silicon and programming that subjects your driving experience to the mercy of wires; more wires; software geeks; and, worst of all, wire connectors.

Please don’t accuse me of being prejudiced against electronics. I’m not. I’m just experienced. I know quality when I see it, and I don’t see it lurking behind the fancy flat-screen displays popular in automotive showrooms. Neither more features nor better gas mileage yields quality.

Quality is the feeling you get when you slam the door on a Rolls-Royce. It’s the sound of a Mossberg pump-action shotgun. It’s the solid, reliable look of a Bell System 2500 telephone, a product built to last for 40 years, the kind of heavy, substantial hunk of electronics that you could use, if necessary, to ward off an attacker. Let’s see you do that with a cell phone.

Quality is not the result of comprehensive computer simulations. Quality is the result of knowing and anticipating, through experience, how an end user will actually use a product.

Dr. Johnson stands in front of his restored 1953 Dodge M37 military truck.Dr. Johnson at Signal Hill ranch with his
1953 Dodge M37 military truck.

My old friend Ben Yamada, an industrial designer, told me that his first professional design task was an electric knife. He dutifully produced a bland, run-of-the-mill product with a buzzing, vibrating blade that, at least in the TV commercials, effortlessly sliced through turkey and ham. Later that year, he encountered the Hamilton Beach hole-in-the-handle electric knife. It was rounded, smooth, and beautifully colored, and it came with a stainless-steel blade. The hole-in-the-handle design offset the motor below the handgrip, improving the balance and allowing the cook to easily grip the slim handle. It was a masterpiece of quality design. It won awards. It sold like hotcakes. Ben was floored. He knew that somewhere, deep within Hamilton, lived an engineer who had chosen not to merely grind out another perfunctory design but had approached every aspect of the product with unrelenting dedication to style and quality—and it paid off. Ben cherished that inspiration for the rest of his career.

When I look under the hood of my next truck, I want to see some quality. What will you see when you look under the hood of the product you are designing?