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Quality assurance is a key factor in boosting a company’s competitive edge

Rising expectations of quality in the B2C context are changing the playing field for B2B customer expectations. The quality assurance service is a way to iron out the kinks in the process. Started early enough in the product’s life cycle, quality assurance plays an essential part in the product’s commercial success, cost-cutting, and making business sense.

Whether we talk about plastic water bottles, industrial robots, or software - quality matters. However, it is a relative term that can mean different things in different contexts. There are at least three entry points into the definition of quality.

"For me, quality consists of three different aspects that all need attention from the start: business, user, and technology itself. All these aspects together make up future-proof solutions", Etteplan's Design Strategist Hanna Remula says.

The definition depends on the product and the customer's needs.

"The definition needs to be discussed from the beginning to have a shared understanding within the project team. A quality product meets its planned purpose and is durable in the traditional meaning of the word – environment and consumption-wise. It also needs to address the expectations of the customer, preferably surpassing the expectations of the end-user," says Tero Leppänen, Vice President of Testing and Product Verification at Etteplan.

High expectations of consumer products impact on business-to-business customer expectations

Customer's expectations have risen exponentially over the last few years, especially in consumer products. This raises the bar in business-to-business products: the customer expects the same quality in work-related products as they are used to in their private life. If an application doesn't work as promised or the user experience is ignored, there are other options. Thus, the quality assurance process is becoming more and more crucial in business-to-business markets as well.

"Raising the bar on quality is one of the ways in which you can have the competitive edge. It is also a question of customer commitment. If your product works the way it is intended to, and the user experience is good, the customer will come back again and again. It translates as a commitment to the brand," Leppänen says.

The key is to think about quality assurance well in advance, preferably from the get-go.

"This can also cut costs or produce added value for customers, for little to no extra expense. For instance, this could mean rethinking the user interface or how the product feels or fits in the end-user's hands. These need not add to the cost if done early enough in the design process," Leppänen points out.

Often not enough attention is paid to user experience. But it is a crucial part of quality, whether the user is a company employee or an external customer. In the worst case, the bad user experience may become national news, as has been the case for some publicly acquired information systems. On a smaller scale, problems can arise because users are not always rational.

"Many aspects can be tested from a technical point of view, but, in the end, you need to test the product to fit the user needs as well. This can have a significant impact on business performance. It is, of course, about how smooth the product is to operate or use, but a good user experience can also be about efficiency, fit-for-purpose issues, or avoiding wastage," Remula says.

Ettenplan's goal is to improve the competitiveness of its customers' products, services, and engineering processes throughout the product life cycle. Through a well-planned quality assurance process, detours can be avoided.

"To fit the real purpose and needs, it is also important to dive deeper into the needs of the customer and user in the very beginning of the process. When the process is based on facts or data rather than presumptions, we can have fewer rounds of iteration and avoid redoing things. Development costs more than design, so spending a bit more time on design helps to cut costs in the later phases of product development," Remula adds.

Quality assurance is a path travelled together

Sometimes quality assurance is equated with testing the final product. However, quality assurance as the final step just before market release is rarely the best solution.

"If the quality of the product is not up to standard, testing and quality assurance will not get you far. If you produce a water bottle that leaks, testing and fixing it afterwards will not produce a quality product. It has to be done at the start, at the design and concept stage," Leppänen says.

At best, the quality assurance process and planning take place throughout the product's lifecycle, from development to manufacturing. It's a full-service concept.

"We try to find digital solutions to the problem at hand pre-emptively through a partnership with our customers. One of our advantages is that we can provide the technological solution, but also have a thorough understanding of the business context in areas such as industrial digitalization, cyber security and med-tech," Remula says.

Quality assurance as a service

A typical quality assurance process starts with finding out information about the product, the end-users or customers, the market for which the product is intended, and any other specific requirements that may need attention, such as legislative requirements.

What is the quality assurance service?

"It is our job to make the process easy for our clients. We can provide support from day one, walk them through the entire process, starting from mapping out the business angle," Remula says. 

Projects start with gathering the business and customer understanding, users' needs and the context before providing solutions. The starting point in digital service creation is identifying a Minimum Viable Product based on findings and needs and building on it.

The testing plan is dependent on the product, but it can include, for instance, software testing, consultation of development processes (e.g. internal quality assurance processes) and physical testing of the product, for instance, vibrations, temperature, shock-proofing, making sure that the product is waterproof or air-tight, as well as EMC-testing to confirm that a particular device meets the required standards.

Parts of the quality assurance process can be automated. Testing automation contributes to efficiency and decreases the likelihood of manual human errors, automates reports, and provides transparency to the quality assurance processes.

It is essential to start with a pre-study. This phase gathers the information used as starting point for the solutions that will benefit the customer the most. Three viewpoints are critical and need to be addressed together: business, technology, and the user. They need to be looked at holistically.

"A process like this usually takes between a month and a half to two months from start to finish. After that, we can start the development quickly and effectively," Remula says.

Preparation is half the battle fought. And it comes with icing on top.

"A well-planned process can make the whole process faster and lead to significant savings. This means making the pre-study well and keeping an eye on the ball in terms of end goals all the way through. A customer satisfied with the quality of the product will return. In the end, it's a matter of having a competitive edge in the world of changing customer demands," Leppänen states.

For more information about quality assurance and market entry, download our Free Guidebook 'Taking the fast lane to market with early phase testing'.