Premature optimization describes the act of trying to make something more efficient at a point where it is too early to do so. Here, this focus on efficiency comes at the expense of more important tasks. As an example, before a business sets up marketing automation, it better understands its customers extremely well; otherwise, the risk is to lower the customer experience due to premature optimization.
Understanding premature optimization
Fundamentally, premature optimization is a distraction from completing work that matters. The focus on optimization is often a focus on incremental improvements. However, this diverts resources away from more important tasks.
For example, many businesses spent time and money designing impressive websites without first developing a product that reflects their core values or consumer needs. Here, businesses need to understand their market and leave optimization for the marketing and delivery of their product or service.
Businesses who spend time optimizing processes that don’t matter often have their priorities wrong. They’re also likely to become discouraged and abandon certain projects completely.
At the very least, they will make uninformed decisions that are ultimately not in their best interests.
Premature optimization in the context of software development
The term premature optimization was originally coined by Stanford University professor Donald E. Knuth. He argued that software developers “should forget about small efficiencies, say about 97% of the time: premature optimization is the root of all evil.”
Although the above quote is frequently cited, it is often taken out of context. Knuth does say that premature optimization is evil, but only 97% of the time. He noted that the remaining 3% was critical in releasing a simple product to market that was only optimized where required.
Given that agile and iterative releases are common to the software industry, the perfectionism associated with premature optimization delays a product receiving consumer feedback. In the worst cases, feedback is never received.
As a result, developers do not understand where optimization should be focused. This invariably leads to a product that consumers do not want to buy or use.
Avoiding premature optimization during the product development stage
A healthy dose of realism will help businesses break out of endless cycles of optimization. They should remember that no product is or ever will be perfect. Businesses who get trapped in this cycle will find that the quality and utility of the finished product will be sub-standard.
They may also find that their competitive advantage has been lost.
Imperfect ideas about a product should come to life in the form of a prototype. From there, feedback should be gathered to take the educated risk of turning that prototype into a saleable product.
Resist the urge to develop a product first without the requisite consumer feedback in place.
Consider the 3%
Knuth said that 3% optimization was critical, but the exact number is less important than deciding where to focus optimization effforts.
To this end, it’s helpful to be introspective. What are the advantages and disadvantages of a specific optimization? Does another improvement take precedence, or will it potentially deliver better results?
Furthermore, what are the costs of the optimization, and do the rewards justify the risk? These are some of the questions businesses can use to make sure they are focusing on the worthiest refinements.
- Premature optimization is the focus on making improvements to a product or service before it is appropriate to do so.
- Premature optimization was coined by Professor Donald Knuth, who argued that optimization in the early stages of software development was detrimental to success 97% of the time.
- To avoid premature optimization, self-awareness and the ability to take educated risks can break the somewhat obsessive focus on improvement.
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