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© 2010 Ugur Akinci
From time to time I see sample documents in which the terms “optimal” and “optimization” are not used correctly. Since it’s a term that’s frequently used, I’d like to address it for the benefit of those TCC readers who wrote to me asking for an explanation of the concept.
For one thing, “optimal” does not mean “maximal.” Similarly, “optimization” and “maximization” are very different concepts indeed. That’s probably the most prevalent mistake that some technical communicators make.
Optimization reflects constraints, limits. It means we are not free to maximize a certain variable in any way we want. In means there are a “set of interrelated circumstances”, interrelated factors that affect one another. When you change one factor, others change too, and usually in the opposite and undesirable direction.
For example, one cannot maximize airplane engine power while ignoring the weight of the engine. There is a point at which the engine becomes so heavy that it’s power won’t be enough to fly the airplane with a given wing design.
In economics such pivotal points are called the “point of decreasing marginal returns.” After that point, every increase in one dimension ends up bringing back a lesser amount of gain in another. It is a point of “increasing costs and decreasing rewards.”
Optimization is the name we give to the effort to increase the rewards in as many dimensions as possible while holding down our total costs at a possible minimum.
That is, optimization is the process by which we try to have our cake and eat it too, to the extent possible. In that sense it is very different from maximization.
For example, a maximal cake eating behavior would consist of eating the whole thing and leaving nothing behind.
But an optimal cake eating experience, in contrast, would force us to stop after the third or fourth slice in order to avoid any stomach cramps or diarrhea.
A maximal marketing plan would spend every single dime the company has on marketing, at the risk of bankruptcy. An optimal marketing plan, on the other hand, dedicates a limited budget since the company needs money to stay afloat and continue manufacturing as well.
Don’t be a “maximal” technical communicator working 24 hours a day on your technical documents. Be an “optimal” communicator by spending some time with family and friends as well.