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Design and Premature Optimization

Co-founder & Chief Strategy Officer, Intercom

Des Traynor

@destraynor

Grandma’s rule has a common meaning across countries & cultures. At a simple level it’s usually understood as “eat your carrots, then you can have dessert“.

At a more abstract level it’s about priorities. Get the important stuff done first, the cool fun stuff can follow. It applies in all disciplines. Let’s see some examples.

Seasoning comes later

Gordon Ramsay is a man of strong opinions. Simplicity in cooking is something he strives for. In an episode of Kitchen Nightmares he points to a spice rack in a kitchen while screaming at a chef “I use these to make good food taste better. You use them to hide the fact that you can’t even cook yet”. True to his word, Ramsay refuses to let chefs in training use any spices or flavourings until they can get the basics right. Despite being a Michelin star chef, Ramsay has an eternal focus on the basics. Few recipes sum this up better than his broccoli soup. Ingredients: Broccoli.

The basics always work

At Carrington training ground, Sir Alex Ferguson’s 73 year old voice booms across the field. “Get off the pitch. Don’t come back until you can hit a decent pass“. The 16 year old teenager runs to the dressing room, worried he has blown his big chance with Manchester United. His crime: a Rabona pass, a difficult way to strike the ball by wrapping your kicking leg across the back of your standing leg. Footballing greats such as Messi, Cristian Ronaldo, Ronaldinho (shown above) can all be seen doing them when they make sense. The important thing here is that they’re all masters of basic passing too. If you can’t do the basics, steer clear of the fancy stuff. Otherwise you end up a YouTube sensation for tripping yourself up.

Zoom with your legs

Photography teachers greet students on day one and confiscate all their lenses and fancy gear straight away. Zooming in to make your shot is a bad habit to form on day one of your education. If you can’t get in the right place to take your photo, all the lenses in the world won’t help. You could make a similar argument for iPhone filters.

Sometimes design is premature optimization

This happens when the complexity of building out the design is greater than the certainty that it’s the right design. For example, if it takes 2 hours to style up a component but only 3 minutes to work out that it’s the wrong element, then you’re making shitty trade-offs. Frameworks like Bootstrap are great for quickly building out a UI so you can start assessing it. This lets you quickly get a feel for what’s right, what’s consistent, and what’s most efficient for the user. Photoshop doesn’t do that, nor does writing hundreds of lines of CSS to style a button Just Right™.

Sometimes the design is the product

The lean startup movement advocates as little work as possible before validating your business model. Lean is one of those words, like Agile, that are chosen deliberately because they set-up a false dichotomy. No one wants to say they’re a Fat Startup. Or that they do Clumsy Development. So everyone is now adopting the Lean Startup® Methodology. Lean is often misinterpreted as “don’t waste time on polish“. Sometimes the polish is all that counts. You can’t judge the market for a five star hotel by building a seedy motel and seeing how well it performs. In some cases the quality of product is more important than the type. When the interface is the killer feature, it’s tricky to go “lean”. If your belief is that people will appreciate a fully polished beautiful to-do list, you can’t show them a scrappy UI to test the market.

Is it a bad design or a bad idea?

In conclusion

You have to get the basics right before adding any high degree of polish. All your shadows, gradients, and transitions won’t save you if you’ve built a sexy but overly complicated interface. In addition, you’re wasting development time polishing things that you don’t yet understand. But in the march towards being as lean as possible, don’t confuse the high-end with the low-end. At the end of the day, you can make a pizza so cheaply and quickly that no one would dare eat it. That doesn’t prove there’s no market for pizza, only that there’s no market for shit pizza. Which are you making?