Software Quality Assurance (SQA) Explained

What’s the difference between a product that users love and one they abandon forever? Thorough testing. And when it comes to digital products, effective and comprehensive software testing has a trickle-down effect on app store ratings, user retention, brand reputation and, ultimately, ROI.

This is why software quality assurance (SQA) is so important. Through SQA, organizations gain confidence that their releases will work as users expect and on the systems that they use, not just in a lab environment.

Effective SQA, however, requires some level of commitment and investment. Not only must QA teams be organized and efficient, they also need documentation to support their efforts, investment in tools that help them get the job done, and adaptiveness to avoid blind spots. And organizations must find these defects as quickly as possible, as constant patches and upgrades cost both money and reputation.

Let’s get back to square one to understand the benefits of a thorough digital quality assurance strategy. What is SQA? And how can you use SQA to deliver better products? Read along to find out.

What is software quality assurance?

The definition of software quality assurance is the continuous effort toward ensuring that digital assets, such as software, applications or features, meet the organization’s established quality standards. SQA varies between teams, organizations, companies and industries, but the ultimate goal is to create high-quality software that is easy to use, secure and valuable to the business.

Software quality assurance has evolved over the years. Rather than a checkbox item to be completed after development, modern SQA runs in parallel with development. Throughout the software development life cycle (SDLC), developers and testers ensure quality standards — and external compliance or technical standards, if applicable — are met.

The primary function of SQA is to catch defects and deficiencies in a digital product as early as possible in the SDLC, where they are easier and cheaper to fix. When these flaws make their way into the customer’s hands, the consequences range from mild frustration to complete brand abandonment. Thus, the investment in SQA is necessary to not only retain customers, but also to onboard new ones and even preserve brand reputation. Every other aspect of a product or market launch can function perfectly, but a flawed or insufficient SQA approach can cause it all to fail.

Some digital quality experts and testers prefer the term software quality assistance over software quality assurance. The terms essentially mean the same thing, yet, with quality assistance, there is more emphasis on involving testers in the development process. This is typically done by coupling developers with testers to take advantage of their various strengths. While an organization cannot assure high-quality products, all team members in the org can assist toward that end goal — and this is the emphasis of the software quality assistance term.

Difference between software quality control and software quality assurance

Though similar in some ways to software quality assurance, software quality control entails different objectives and benefits. Organizations should prioritize both quality assurance and quality control to ensure high-quality product launches.

The roots of modern quality control in manufacturing reach back more than a century to the advent of the Industrial Revolution. As mass production of manufactured goods became commonplace, a greater emphasis was placed on quality control to ensure consistent quality throughout a product line. The implementation of software quality control developed during the Information Age of the mid-1900s, when it became apparent that quality control standards should apply to software too. When physical or digital products, quality control standards ultimately aim to create products that consistently serve users as designed.

People often use the terms quality control and quality assurance interchangeably, but they each encapsulate separate tasks and activities. SQA focuses on achieving quality during the software development process. Software quality control identifies defects and flaws in completed products. Thus, quality assurance is prevention-oriented, while quality control is detection-oriented.

Another difference between software quality assurance and software quality control is the scope of the work. SQA focuses on all software development efforts that occur within an enterprise --- the SQA function is only as strong as the organization around it. Software quality control consists of a set of activities that focus on monitoring the quality of a single software product, though the organization often replicates practices across different teams for consistency, clarity and cost savings.

Software quality control typically occurs only during a product’s review and testing phases, unlike SQA. Both activities, however, involve software testing as core components of their agendas.

Software quality assurance standards

You can’t improvise your way to high-quality digital products. Software quality assurance standards, or software quality assurance frameworks, help organizations establish guidelines and success criteria. Software quality assurance standards can be internal or external. These standards ensure the business ultimately meets software specifications and customer requirements for products. Businesses and organizations complying to quality standards helps products, services, and personnel cross borders and also ensures that products manufactured in one country can be sold and used in another.

Some notable software quality assurance standards include:

  • ISO 9000 family

  • Capability Maturity Model Integration

  • Test Maturity Model integration

  • Military quality standards

ISO 9000 family. The International Organization For Standardization (ISO) 9000 family includes several individual standards: ISO 9001, 9002, 9003 and so on. This family of ISO standards initially covered industrial measurements and topics, but they have since expanded to become an internationally recognized benchmark with tremendous influence over many day-to-day digital activities. ISO 9000 certification ensures not only that digital assets will meet minimum digital quality assurance standards, but that customers will have a base level of confidence in those products.

The comprehensive ISO 9001 standard applies to companies of all industries and sizes who design, develop, manufacture and maintain products or services. More than one million organizations in 170 countries have gained ISO 9001 certification, according to the organization. Additional industry-specific standards exist to guide engineers with product quality, including ISO/IEC/IEEE 90003:2018 for software engineering.

Capability Maturity Model Integration (CMMI). Required by many government-level contracts, CMMI guides improvement for development and software quality assurance processes for projects, teams and organizations. CMMI integrates functions across different levels of the organization and sets explicit goals for process improvement.

CMMI defines five maturity levels that an organization can achieve:

  • Level 1: Initial. “Processes unpredictable, poorly controlled and reactive.”

  • Level 2: Managed. “Processes characterized for projects and often reactive.”

  • Level 3: Defined. “Processes characterized for the organization and proactive.”

  • Level 4: Quantitatively managed. “Processes measured and controlled.”

  • Level 5: Optimizing. “Focus on process improvement.”

To advance to higher maturity levels, the organization must master different practice areas. These areas are grouped into several categories, including project management, engineering, process management and support. While different areas touch on quality in different ways, the Process and Product Quality Assurance (PPQA) process area provides guidance for audits and software QA activities.

Test Maturity Model integration (TMMi). The TMMi takes its cues from CMMI and offers a similar approach to software quality assurance guidance, advancing organizations along a maturity ladder. Unlike CMMI, however, TMMi is specifically geared toward testing.

Organizations start at the bottom, then progress through five different levels:

  • Level 1: Initial. No defined scope. This is the beginning stage.

  • Level 2: Managed. Covers test policy and strategy, planning, monitoring, design and execution, and environments.

  • Level 3: Defined. Includes test organization, a training program, the STLC and integration, non-functional testing and peer reviews.

  • Level 4: Quantitatively managed. Focuses on test measurement, product or software quality evaluation, and advanced reviews.

  • Level 5: Optimizing. Optimizes defect prevention, test processes, and quality control.

The goal is to improve the organization as a whole through these test improvement efforts, aligning more with business efforts as the group advances to new levels. The end result should be fewer defects and more efficient overall testing.

Military quality standards. For years, the U.S. government had its own separate standards for contractors to follow for military systems and hardware. MIL-Q-9858A, titled A Quality Program, was one of the primary standards dictating technical requirements for everything from work instructions and operations to documentation and inspection.

However, over time, the government has slowly but surely started to follow ISO standards. Different public sector departments and organizations might adhere to and require different standards.

Other military standards include MIL-STD-498 and DOD-STD-2167.

Software quality assurance techniques

There’s no shortage of software quality assurance techniques. How you do SQA depends on the overall goals of a project or product, as well as the time and resources allotted.

Software quality assurance techniques can refer to either the goal of testing and validating the product, or the improvement of the testing process itself. While elements like functional, non-functional and user experience testing are often lumped in with SQA techniques, these are technically quality control efforts. These are vitally important elements in digital quality, but SQA techniques more commonly refer to how an organization defines and refines its quality processes.

SQA organizations can approach process improvement in a variety of ways, some more strict than others. Here are a few SQA techniques that can help you make the most of your time and efforts.

Continuous improvement

Organizations should constantly work to better their efficiency to catch defects earlier. Rather than improve processes on a one-off basis, continuous improvement helps organizations approach the task iteratively. Continuous improvement relies on four key actions:

  • plan

  • do

  • check

  • act

First, the organization must put a plan in place for how the software quality assurance and engineering activities will be carried out. Collect the important data and develop strategies for addressing issues. The plan also ensures teams have the right people and resources for the task. In the do stage, the organization implements the plan, deciding on relevant metrics to gauge and measure success. Through data analysis and regular checkpoints, the team can check the effectiveness of the software quality assurance strategy. Then, with act, the organization can audit and document results. This helps the organization either enforce process change on a broader level or move on.

There are various types of continuous improvement methods that can help organizations implement regular change, including:

  • Kaizen

  • Six Sigma

  • Kanban

  • Total Quality Management

  • value stream mapping

  • Gemba walks

Benchmarking

QA benchmarking gives you an idea of where your product stands compared to your own past measurements or those of the competition, enabling you to put a proactive improvement plan in place. There are four types of benchmarking: performance, practice, internal and external.

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Performance benchmarking involves comparing quantitative data about how the product performs. Each organization might decide on different performance data, KPIs or measurements, but the idea is to ultimately analyze the information and make decisions accordingly. The flip side is practice benchmarking, which evaluates qualitative data, such as how a team functions. Both of these unveil performance gaps on which the organization can improve.

Through internal benchmarking, you can evaluate the product and the organization against past metrics. This approach can also reveal deficiencies in particular departments or teams that share metrics. External benchmarking involves evaluating the group against a separate high-functioning group, or even a competitor if you have access to that information.

Cost-benefit analysis

Business-oriented techniques, such as a cost-benefit or operations analysis, can help identify the appropriate level of quality for the business’ level of comfort. There’s a cost to quality, and there’s a cost to lack of quality. By measuring the cost-benefit of software quality assurance processes, the business can decide what, where and how to invest in digital quality.

There are many other ways to approach SQA depending on the business and organizational goals. As a general rule, SQA techniques should operate in an efficient way that delivers value back to the business.

Pros and cons of software quality assurance

High-quality software is a business differentiator, a useful and valuable characteristic. Thus, software quality assurance should be a priority for any business, regardless of the hurdles that come with it. There are many SQA advantages, but it often comes at a price, especially as brands scale with many organizations, teams and products in different markets. Let’s explore the pros and cons of SQA.

Pros of SQA

  • Revenue. QA teams that work efficiently and release high-quality products ultimately deliver revenue back to the business. While development often gets praise for new products, the QA organization makes sure it’ll work for users in the real world, measuring the relevant KPIs to ensure success.

  • Compatibility. When products or services are developed and tested based on industry standards, they will be compatible with more products or services worldwide. In today’s increasingly extensible, integrated digital landscape, compatibility is an imperative, and users expect products to work together harmoniously.

  • Global reach. Digital products that comply with international quality standards help ensure that products manufactured in one country will work in another. Brands constantly battle over new markets and demographics, and quality can be a leg up for organizations that invest the time and effort.

  • Inclusivity. When organizations plan for inclusive design from the outset, not only can they better design for people with disabilities, but they can also create products that are more intuitive for all users. Features like closed captioning, for example, are beneficial to all users. Inclusivity and accessibility also helps the business tapped into revenue it would otherwise miss.

Cons of SQA

  • Investment. It takes time and money to test products thoroughly, especially in the beginning as the business defines and refines best practices. As the business scales, the costs to develop, test and release high-quality products scales with it.

  • Organizational commitment. Software quality assurance isn’t a tool you buy; it’s a full-fledged commitment to high quality, improvement and efficiency. That means getting all relevant team members onboard and collaborating toward the business’ ultimate quality goals.

  • Resource intensive. Tools, platforms, partners and services are rarely free --- even if they are open source, there’s typically a cost to put these tools to use at scale. On top of the investment in these assets, the organization must disseminate knowledge of how to use them to see broader ROI and avoid siloes.

Create an SQA plan with Applause

It’s a lot of work to staff, train, manage and improve software quality assurance processes. Even if you do a flawless job of testing one product, there’s no guarantee you will be able to do so effectively for the next product, or in the next market, or for a different target customer, or on the devices you need.

Software testing providers can help broaden an organization’s capabilities, but a software testing partner shares in your successes, pushing the organization to achieve its digital quality assurance goals.

That’s where Applause comes in. Applause’s global community of vetted digital experts give you the resources you need to expand when, where and how you need. Whether you need a full-fledged manual functional testing program with in-market testers for a product launch or automation experts to help expand your test coverage, Applause has been there and done that. Name-brand companies all over the world trust Applause to help guide and execute their digital quality assurance strategies.

If you need real users with real devices in real locations, Applause is unparalleled in its ability to provide those resources. Share your digital quality goals with us today to get started.

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