The Importance of the Quality Engineer

on November 7, 2016
Reading Time: 3 minutes

When a new product is introduced at a company event, it’s the executives, design engineers, and industrial designers that get the all of the credit. But behind every new product is engineers that focus on quality and reliability that rarely get much recognition.

Their role is not a glamorous job; it requires more discipline and less creativity than the designers. They often focus on the negative, trying to find problems with a product before it’s shipped. They’re also the ones that can require the designers to go back and redesign and delay a product’s introduction, subjecting themselves to lots of pressure.

Their job is to simulate the worst cases the product will experience before it’s shipped, taking on the role of the customer. They’re not the most popular members of the team; they are sometimes seen as a traffic cop. Design engineers focus on creativity and invention. The product is their baby and no parent wants to be told their baby is flawed or has a wart.

If a company’s executives or board wants to know how a new product is really doing, the quality engineers are the ones to ask. They have all of the statistics because their job is not only to be sure the product will last but to monitor how well the product is performing once it ships. They’ll tabulate the complaints, analyze the returns, and report back to the design team what needs to be improved.

Yet, in spite of their efforts to provide an objective account of a product’s performance before it ships, they’re occasionally overruled. Companies often ship products with the expectations of getting returns, based on a calculated decision. You just hope that doesn’t happen when safety is involved.

When Samsung shipped the Galaxy Note 7, both the initial and the redesigned versions, it’s hard to believe the quality engineers were happy and not overruled.

I’ve often thought how valuable it would be if we, as consumers, had access to the quality information before buying a new product. Our buying decisions would be much more informed.

We’d know the likelihood of a product needing to be repaired, see a list of the most frequent failures, and be able to make a clear comparison between competitive products before purchasing. But, of course, this information is closely guarded and rarely available. The best we can do is to consult things like Consumer Reports who tabulate experiences of their customers for a few category of products.

The next best alternative is to access customer reviews, surveys, and complaints from the web. While it’s impossible to determine the specific percentage of returns, there’s plenty of anecdotal evidence that can help. It’s easy to Google a problem we encounter and see if others have had similar problems.

A case in point. Almost a year ago, my daughter gifted me a Fitbit Charge as an incentive to be more active. But, after nine months, I’m on my fourth unit. The silicone rubber band on two units simply peeled apart, and a third unit had a defective battery that lasted less than a day. The products were never abused or used near water. While statistically surprising, I initially assumed I just had bad luck. When I mentioned this to others, two relatives and a friend, each of the three had to replace theirs several times. And, after searching through the company’s blogs and online reviews, I’ve found scores of users experiencing similar issues with many of the models.

Now, any product can expect to have a small percentage of defective units and, when you sell millions, the actual number of defects can be large. Typical return numbers for defects in the first year for a well-designed and manufactured product range from about half a percent to 2%. More than 3% is considered very high.

It’s hard to know what the true percentage of Fitbit defects are from this anecdotal evidence. Based on my experience, I bet it’s very high.

But considering the poor performance of the company’s stock in recent days, if I were a stock analyst, I’d want to understand how big a problem this is. Ask the quality engineers and you’ll get a better predictability of Fitbit’s fortunes than asking the CFO.

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Fitbit offered this response when I asked them about their product quality issues:

The quality of Fitbit products and the health and safety of our customers are our top priorities. We conduct extensive testing and consult with top industry experts to develop stringent standards so that users can safely wear and enjoy our products. We also are committed to delivering a superior customer experience. We respond quickly when customers report issues and strive to work closely with them through our customer service channels to ensure their satisfaction. If consumers have any questions or concerns, they can contact us at help.fitbit.com.

While much of this may be true, their product reliability is not there yet.