On premature optimization (HT @edent)

I think a lot of planners are guilty of ‘premature optimization’, a phrase I just read about in this sensible post about whether the tendency of designers to aim at 100% pixel-perfection is really warranted.

Premature optimization was first mentioned by Donald Knuth, computer scientist and professor at Stanford University in a paper about structured programming back in 1974.

To quote:

“Programmers waste enormous amounts of time thinking about, or worrying about, the speed of noncritical parts of their programs, and these attempts at efficiency actually have a strong negative impact when debugging and maintenance are considered. We should forget about small efficiencies, say about 97% of the time:premature optimization is the root of all evil. Yet we should not pass up our opportunities in that critical 3%.”

There are a lot of parallels in the philosophy behind premature optimization and agile development, especially this principle in the agile manifesto: working software over comprehensive documentation. The more we focus on perfecting things (to document them as accurately as possible or not), the more we are likely to overlook essential features that people actually need.

Unnecessary focus on perfection could also mean your idea/project is late to market, possibly behind a competitor’s launch.

Ship, ship, ship.


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