What is Prompt Engineering?  — Part 2: Properties of Effective Prompts

What is Prompt Engineering? — Part 2: Properties of Effective Prompts

In the last story (What is Prompt Engineering? — The Basics), we introduced Prompt Engineering and covered the basic elements of prompt engineering. In this story, we dive deeper to understand the factors that contribute to building effective prompts.

I. Specificity

The property of defining a task or desired output the Generative AI model should generate is Specificity.

For instance, take a look at the following two prompts and their responses/output.

Prompt #1.1:

Prompt #1.2:

One can see that Prompt#1.2 is more specific, and hence the response/output is more detailed and focused.

II. Context

The context is the situation or environment in which a prompt is received by the Generative AI model. Good context helps the model understand the user’s intent and hence can churn out a better response to the prompt input.

A few factors that contribute to setting up the right context for the prompt are

  1. Task: The task or problem that the prompt is intended to solve plays a significant role in determining the context
  2. User: Knowledge of user persona and preferences helps create prompts that are clear, concise, and easy to understand.
  3. Feedback mechanisms: Feedback influence the subsequent iterations of prompts
  4. Previous interactions: Interactions of the past between the user and the system influence how users respond to subsequent prompts; and considering such past interactions while structuring a subsequent prompt is always beneficial
  5. Domain knowledge: Knowledge of the domain or field related to the prompt is critical for engineers to devise more relevant prompts

A few other miscellaneous factors to consider while designing a prompt are

  1. Environment: The physical or virtual environment in which the prompt is presented. Eg: A prompt displayed on a mobile might have a different format than one displayed on a laptop
  2. Resources: Available software, hardware, and people impact the design and implementation of prompts
  3. Time constraints: ETAs or time limits for completing a task also influence the way prompts are designed

III. Length of the prompt

Length of a prompt plays a crucial role in the outcome. Shorter and longer prompts have their own pros-n-cons.

Benefits of longer prompts:

  1. Context: A longer prompt provides more context for the model, which can result in a more accurate and relevant response. With more information, the model can better understand the topic, tone, and style of the requested text.
  2. Guiding the model: A well-crafted prompt can guide the model toward generating appropriate and relevant content. A longer prompt allows for more specific guidance, reducing the likelihood of irrelevant or off-topic responses.
  3. Training data: Longer prompts can be more representative of real-world use cases, where users may provide more detailed requests or questions. This can help the model generalize better to different scenarios and improve its overall performance.
  4. Model capacity: Longer prompts can challenge the model’s capabilities, forcing it to process and integrate more information. This can help identify potential limitations in the model’s architecture or training data.
  5. User experience: From a user perspective, longer prompts can be beneficial when requesting complex or nuanced information. They allow users to provide sufficient context, making it easier for the model to comprehend their needs and deliver valuable responses.
  6. Efficiency: While longer prompts can lead to better results in some situations, they also increase the computational cost and runtime. This means that the model must process additional information, potentially leading to slower responses.
  7. Overfitting: Very long prompts might contain unnecessary or redundant information, risking overfitting the model to the training data. This can negatively impact the model’s ability to generalize to new inputs.
  8. Language understanding: Longer prompts test the model’s natural language understanding abilities, requiring it to interpret and integrate multiple pieces of information effectively. Shorter prompts might focus on a single aspect or idea, making this task simpler.
  9. Cognitive load: Extremely long prompts can become challenging for humans to read and digest, increasing cognitive load. This can negatively affect user engagement and usability.

Benefits of shorter prompts

  1. Faster processing: Short prompts require less computation and can be processed faster, resulting in quicker responses. This can be beneficial in applications where timeliness is essential, such as in customer support or chatbots.
  2. Concise input: Brief prompts encourage concise input from users, reducing the amount of unnecessary information provided. This helps keep the conversation focused and efficient.
  3. Lower cognitive load: Shorter prompts are generally easier to read and understand, placing lower cognitive demands on users. This can enhance user engagement and interaction with the chatbot.
  4. Improved user experience: Concise prompts often lead to clearer, more directed conversations. Users can quickly understand what information the chatbot requires, minimizing confusion or frustration.
  5. Better model performance: Training data consisting of shorter prompts can help optimize the model’s performance. Models trained on concise prompts tend to generalize better to diverse user queries.
  6. Less overfitting: Short prompts reduce the risk of overfitting the model to the training data. By providing only essential information, there is less chance of introducing redundant or unnecessary details that could negatively impact the model’s ability to generalize.
  7. Easier troubleshooting: When issues arise, short prompts simplify the troubleshooting process by offering fewer variables to consider. This streamlines problem identification and resolution.
  8. More focused dialogue: Short prompts promote focused conversations, allowing the chatbot to address specific user concerns without getting bogged down in extraneous details. This leads to more productive interactions.
  9. Enhanced flexibility: Shorter prompts offer greater versatility in crafting responses. The chatbot has more liberty to generate answers tailored to each user’s unique needs.
  10. Reduced spam vulnerability: Spammers frequently exploit lengthy prompts to inject malicious or promotional content. Short prompts mitigate this issue by limiting the space available for unwanted material.

IV. Language

Crisp, clear, and unambiguous language used in the prompt contributes to the better prompt output. It helps with efficient processing, improved user experience and model performance, consistent responses, and lesser errors.

Ask direct and unambiguous questions

Eg: “Can you tell me about ancient Indian civilisation?” a more direct and unambiguous approach would be, “What were the dressing, and eating styles of ancient Indian civilisation during the 10th century?”

To elicit a yes/no response, use phrasing like, “Is [statement] true or false?” rather than, “Do you agree with [statement]?”

Use concrete nouns and verbs
Eg: “book” instead of “publication,” and “reserve” instead of “make a reservation”

Provide specific options or choices whenever possible
Eg: “Would you prefer option A or option B?” rather than, “Which option do you prefer?”

Avoid vague terms or jargon, opting for more descriptive language
Eg: “Please provide the error message you received” instead of, “Can you give me more details?”

For validation purposes, employ precise sentences.
Eg: “The entered password must be at least eight characters long and contain both uppercase and special characters,” instead of, “Make sure your password is strong.”

V. Bias and fairness

Biased prompts contribute to perpetuating harmful stereotypes. Hence, designing fair and unbiased prompts are very crucial for ethical prompt engineering.

A few good practices to follow for building unbiased and fair prompts:

  1. Using data that diverse and representative of subject/people/domain that the prompts will be applied to
  2. Avoid gendered or offensive language
  3. Consider multiple perspectives during designing the prompt
  4. Test for bias before deploying prompts using the techniques such as debiasing algorithms or human evaluators
  5. Providing context around the intent of the prompt can help users understand their limitations and avoid misinterpretation
  6. Continuously evaluate and improve: Prompt engineering is an iterative process, and it’s important to continuously evaluate and improve prompts based on user feedback and performance metrics
  7. Involve diverse stakeholders to ensure that the prompt results are inclusive and fair
  8. Using objective criteria, such as accuracy or relevance, to evaluate the effectiveness of prompts can help reduce bias and ensure that prompts are evaluated consistently across different groups
  9. Prompts should be developed with cultural and linguistic diversity in mind, taking into account differences in language usage, cultural references, and norms
  10. Encouraging transparent communication between humans and machines can help build trust and ensure that prompts are used ethically and responsibly.

VI. Error handling, Testing, & Iteration

Error handling, testing, and iterating over the prompts help refine the prompts. It helps in handling ambiguous queries, and out-of-scope questions, and improving the model’s performance. These things play a critical role in tailoring the model’s behavior and aligning it with specific use cases, making it more suitable for a wide range of applications.

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