Occam’s Razor

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What is Occam’s Razor?

Occam's Razor is a problem-solving principle. It suggests the simplest explanation or solution—with the fewest assumptions—is often most likely the correct one. It encourages designers to eliminate unnecessary complexity and focus on the essential elements of a design. Designers apply it to make intuitive and efficient user interfaces.

Image of stained glass picture of William of Ockham

Occam's Razor takes its name from the 14th-century philosopher William of Ockham.

© Chris Simms, Fair Use

Occam's Razor Helps Cut to the Chase

The 14th-century philosopher William of Ockham suggested that the simplest explanation or solution is often the most accurate one. Because of its focus on direct simplicity and minimal assumptions, it has been a driving force among a wide range of problem-solvers for centuries.

More precisely, this philosophical principle advises decision-makers to select the simplest explanation or solution when they face multiple options. An essential point behind the approach to choose the most straightforward solution is that thinkers should avoid making unnecessary assumptions. William of Ockham never explicitly formulated this principle. However, he frequently employed a similar idea in his philosophical and theological work. The essence of Occam's Razor traces back to the concept of "Pluralitas non est ponenda sine necessitate." That Latin sentence means "Plurality should not be posited without necessity."

Image of Apple screen showing

Occam’s Razor—clean simplicity in the modern age.

© Craig Barber, Fair Use

How to Apply Occam's Razor: UX Design

Occam's Razor plays a crucial role in user experience (UX) design and, more visibly, in user interface (UI) design. As it promotes user-friendliness and simplification, it’s a powerful asset in any UX design process and the digital design of products or services. When designers work to create products such as web pages and mobile apps, they strive to stick to the principle of “sufficient to explain.” That means they ensure that their designs are intuitive, efficient and user-centric. From web design to app creation, Occam's Razor therefore helps prevent—or eliminate—unnecessary features. In its approach to ensure a well-solved problem, it enables designers to minimize cognitive overload and enhance the overall user experience.

Occam's Razor is an especially powerful principle that designers leverage to produce the following:

1.  Streamlined Navigation

One of the key areas where Occam's Razor comes into play is for designers to create streamlined navigation systems. So, designers should avoid cluttered menus and convoluted navigation paths. Then, they can help to create interfaces that let users find what they need to effortlessly. Well-known brands such as Google and Airbnb excel in this aspect. These brands employ clean and straightforward interfaces that prioritize ease of navigation.

Screenshot of Google Home page

Google’s iconic clean and minimalist look embodies the principle of streamlining.

© Google, Fair Use

2. Minimalist Visuals

Occam's Razor extends beyond navigation and influences aesthetic aspects of visual design in digital products. When UX designers embrace minimalist design principles, they can focus on essential elements. Meanwhile, they eliminate unnecessary visual noise. Brands like Apple are renowned for their minimalist approach. Apple creates elegant and user-friendly experiences that prioritize core features and functionalities.

Screenshot of Apple web page.

Apple’s iconic look is geared around minimalism and classy user-friendliness.

© Apple, Fair Use

3.  Clear and Concise Messaging

Effective communication is vital to deliver a seamless user experience. A central part of Occam's Razor in design is its emphasis on clear and concise messaging. When designers apply it, they ensure that users understand the purpose and functionality of an interface effortlessly. Designers should use straightforward language, eliminate jargon and provide concise instructions—this ensures that users understand and interact with their products seamlessly.

Screenshot of Airbnb web page.

Airbnb gets the point across concisely in its highly intuitive design.

© Airbnb, Fair Use

4.  Streamlined Forms and Inputs

Online forms are integral to many digital experiences. Occam's Razor can guide designers to create streamlined and user-friendly forms. Designers minimize the number of form fields, pre-fill information when possible and provide helpful input validation. When they do this, they can reduce friction. They can also increase completion rates.

The principle of Occam's Razor highlights the significance of straightforward and succinct communication. If designers prevent or remove cluttered menus and complex navigation routes, they can develop interfaces that enable users to easily locate the information they need. Typeform and similar platforms have streamlined intricate forms that provide seamless and user-friendly interfaces.

Illustration of a screen showing form fields.

Simple forms enable users to get information across fast and with minimum work.

© Paul Capcan, Fair Use

5.  Reduction of Cognitive Load

A core part of the advice in Occam's Razor is that designers minimize their users’ cognitive load. Designers should eliminate unnecessary complexities and organize content and features logically and efficiently. This can be achieved if they apply thoughtful organization, efficient information architecture, clear hierarchy and intuitive interaction patterns. Designers can tap into users' existing mental models, reduce the learning curve and enhance usability if they use familiar icons and standard conventions          

6.  Consistent Design Elements

An Occam’s Razor design generally features a uniformity in colors, fonts and icons throughout the interface. This helps to maintain coherence and assists in the user flow and overall user and customer experience. Also, when designers apply consistent design patterns and standards across an interface, they align with Occam’s Razor in its promotion of familiarity and predictability.

7.  Progressive Disclosure

The Occam’s Razor principle recommends that information in interfaces should only be revealed when users need it. For example, when users access one section of an onboarding screen, they only encounter the information necessary for that part of it. Not only does this reduce clutter and cognitive load; it also matches users’ expectations as they proceed.

8.  Error Prevention and Handling

Designers can anticipate and prevent errors through clear and concise instructions with this design principle. This reduces the need for troubleshooting, and it can take the form of, for example, a calendar date picker for booking tickets.

Image of a calendar widget on a computer screen.

Calendar widget for selecting travel dates.

© UXPlanet.org, Fair Use

9.  Clear Calls To Action

Designers should use clear and concise calls to action (CTAs) that guide users toward their intended actions without ambiguity. This supports Occam's Razor as it streamlines the user's decision-making process on the way to the goals they want to achieve.

Illustration of three mobile phone screens during a transaction.

PayPal’s simple and straightforward look helps users check out with a clear sense of trust and security.

© Radiant Digital, Fair Use

Tips to Successfully Use Occam's Razor in UX Design

Designers should incorporate these tips into the design process to effectively apply Occam's Razor. When they use it as one of their centermost design tools, they can help create exceptional user experiences that prioritize simplicity and effectiveness.

1.  Know the users: Designers should conduct user research thoroughly to understand the target audience's needs, goals and pain points. This knowledge will help them design with simplicity and relevance in mind.

2. Prioritize clarity: Ensure that messaging and instructions are clear, concise and easily understandable. Use plain language and avoid unnecessary technical jargon. Clear communication reduces cognitive load. It also lets users navigate the interface more efficiently.

3.  Prioritize essential elements: Identify the core features and functionalities that align with the users' goals. Focus on these elements and eliminate any extraneous features that could distract or confuse users.

4.  Embrace minimalism: Strive for simplicity in visual design, typography and color schemes. Use white space strategically and remove any unnecessary visual elements to create a clean and uncluttered interface.

5.  Simplify navigation: Streamline menus and group similar items for easy navigation. Reduce the number of steps required to complete tasks. Also, guide users through a clear and intuitive information architecture.

6.  Test and iterate: Continuously test designs with real users. Gather feedback and identify areas for improvement. Usability testing is a vital ingredient in the design process to see how users interact with a prototype or product. So, use insights from user testing to iterate with design team members, refine and simplify designs further.

Screenshot of a 62 Management web page showing models.

The best designs speak clearly to users.

© 62 Management, Fair Use

Occam's Razor: Risks and Considerations

While Occam's Razor is a valuable principle in UX design, it's important to consider potential risks and limitations:

●  Oversimplification

If a designer over-simplifies an interface, it can lead to a lack of necessary functionality or usability issues. It's crucial to strike a balance between simplicity and meeting user needs. Continuously gather user feedback and iterate on designs to ensure the right level of simplicity without sacrificing functionality.

●  Context Matters

Keep in mind that the application of Occam's Razor may vary depending on the context and specific user requirements. What works for one user group may not work for another. So, understand the user journey, cultural considerations and other fine-tuned aspects of the people to design for. Tailor the design decisions to the unique needs of that target audience.

●  Complexity is Sometimes Necessary

Occam's Razor serves as a guiding principle to prioritize simplicity and elegance in designs and deliver seamless, streamlined, user-centric experiences. Do not apply it blindly, however. In certain cases, designers may need more complex solutions to address specific user needs or intricate tasks. Carefully evaluate the trade-offs between simplicity and functionality to ensure that the design effectively meets user requirements.

Overall, Occam's Razor serves as an invaluable principle in UX design. It guides designers to prioritize simplicity and minimal assumptions. However, it is only a guide to create intuitive and efficient user interfaces that enhance the overall user experience. Discretion and judgment are essential to consider potential risks and ensure that design decisions strike the right balance between simplicity and functionality. Ultimately, it’s a valuable part of a designer’s toolbox and a good form of insurance against user uncertainty and lack of trust.

Screenshot from the Zara website.

Zara’s simple and clean look speaks to fashion lovers in no uncertain terms.

© Zara, Fair Use

Learn More about Occam’s Razor

Take our course Affordances: Designing Intuitive User Interfaces.

Read our piece Occam’s Razor: The simplest solution is always the best for further insights.

Find some sharp tips and examples in Occam’s Razor: The Simplest Solution for Designers by Radiant Digital.

Consult The Art of Simplicity How Occam’s Razor Elevates UX Design by Craig Barber for more in-depth information.

For additional insights, read Occam’s Razor by Naina Lavakare.

Questions related to Occam’s Razor

How is Occam's Razor like Keep It Simple Stupid (KISS)?

Occam's Razor and the "Keep It Simple Stupid" principle are similar in these areas:

1. Simplicity as a guiding principle

Both Occam's Razor and the "Keep It Simple Stupid" principle emphasize the importance of simplicity in problem-solving and decision-making.

Occam's Razor suggests that among competing hypotheses, the one with the fewest assumptions should be selected.

"Keep It Simple Stupid" encourages simplicity in design and problem-solving to avoid unnecessary complexity.

2. Preferential treatment of simpler explanations or solutions

Occam's Razor advises that when multiple competing hypotheses are equal in other respects, the simplest one is the one to select.

Similarly, the "Keep It Simple Stupid" principle urges the preference for simple solutions over complicated ones, provided they effectively address the problem at hand.

3. Focus on minimizing unnecessary complexity

Both concepts advocate for the reduction of unnecessary complexity in favor of straightforward, elegant solutions.

Occam's Razor highlights the need to minimize unnecessary entities or assumptions in explanations.

"Keep It Simple Stupid" promotes the avoidance of unnecessary features, processes, or design elements that can complicate a solution without adding significant value.

4. Application in various fields

Occam's Razor is commonly used in scientific and philosophical reasoning to guide hypothesis selection and problem-solving.

The "Keep It Simple Stupid" principle finds application in diverse fields such as engineering, design, management and communication. It emphasizes the benefits of simplicity in these domains.

Take our course Human-Computer Interaction: The Foundations of UX Design to take a deep-dive into this and other principles geared around design for users.

Does Occam's Razor have any similarities to Hick's Law?

Occam's Razor and Hick's Law are two distinct principles from different fields, but they share some similarities in their underlying concepts. Occam's Razor is a principle from the field of philosophy and science that states that when there are competing hypotheses to explain a phenomenon, the simplest explanation is often the best.

Hick's Law, on the other hand, is a principle in psychology and ergonomics that describes the time it takes for a person to make a decision as a result of the possible choices they have. It states that increasing the number of choices will increase the decision time logarithmically.

Similarities

●  Both Occam's Razor and Hick's Law emphasize simplicity and efficiency.

●  Occam's Razor advocates for the simplest explanation, while Hick's Law highlights the advantage of reducing the number of choices to make decisions more efficiently.

While Occam's Razor and Hick's Law are different in their specific applications, they both promote the idea that simplicity and reduction of unnecessary elements can lead to more effective outcomes.

Take our course Psychology of Commerce: How to Sell Online for insights into how to design successfully for users.

What role does Occam's Razor play in usability testing?

When designers apply Occam's Razor in usability testing, they observe users as the users interact with a product. Designers note where these users encounter difficulties. By seeking the simplest solutions to these issues, designers can make incremental improvements that significantly enhance usability. For instance, if users struggle with a complex navigation menu, Occam's Razor would suggest simplifying it to a more intuitive structure.

 This principle also supports a user-centered design approach. It emphasizes the need to remove any non-essential elements that do not add value to the user's experience. When they focus on simplicity, designers can create more efficient and accessible products that meet users' needs more effectively.

Take our course Conducting Usability Testing for essential and in-depth insights into how to design successfully for users with testing.

In what ways can Occam's Razor influence information architecture?

Occam's Razor can greatly influence information architecture by encouraging simplicity and clarity. In information architecture, for designers to apply Occam's Razor means they design websites and digital products in a way that is easy for users to understand and navigate. The principle encourages designers to minimize complexity in the structure of information, reduce unnecessary content and focus on essential elements that improve user experience.

 When they streamline navigation and organize content clearly, designers can create more intuitive and user-friendly interfaces. This approach helps users find information faster and with less effort. It therefore enhances the overall effectiveness of the digital product.

 Watch CEO of Experience Dynamics, Frank Spillers explain how to use UI design patterns to make exceptional user interfaces.

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How can designers use Occam's Razor to evaluate existing user interfaces?

Designers can use Occam's Razor to evaluate existing user interfaces by choosing the simplest designs that meet user needs. This means they remove unnecessary elements that don't add value, which makes the interface cleaner and easier to use. Designers compare different design options and select the one that makes the least assumptions. That leads to a straightforward and efficient user experience.

This approach helps designers to identify and eliminate complicated features, which makes navigation intuitive. When designers use Occam's Razor, they focus on essential functions that enhance usability, and ensure the interface is accessible and user-friendly.

 Watch our topic video on accessibility to appreciate the need to design with accessibility in mind.

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How can designers apply Occam's Razor and Fitts's Law together in UX design?

Designers can apply Occam's Razor and Fitts's Law together in UX design if they simplify interfaces and optimize the placement of elements for easy interaction. Occam's Razor encourages reducing unnecessary components to make the design as simple as possible. Fitts's Law suggests that designers place important interactive elements in easy-to-reach areas, which makes them larger for quicker access. When they combine these principles, designers can create user-friendly interfaces that are both simple and efficient. This enhances the overall user experience by making navigation intuitive and actions effortless.

Take our course UI Design Patterns for Successful Software for essential and in-depth insights into how to design successfully for users and factor in their needs properly.

How does Occam's Razor aid in creating more effective user personas and scenarios?

Occam's Razor aids designers to create more effective user personas and scenarios via its encouragement of the focus on essential, realistic details that accurately reflect target users. It simplifies personas by eliminating unnecessary assumptions and complexities. That leads to clearer, more actionable insights. Designers can concentrate on key attributes and behaviors that truly matter. Especially when designers are using design thinking, they can make personas and scenarios more relatable and useful for guiding design decisions. This streamlined approach ensures that design efforts align closely with user needs and preferences, which enhances the effectiveness of the UX design process.

 Watch Author and Expert in Human-Computer Interaction Professor Alan Dix explain personas and their value in design.

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How does Occam's Razor affect content strategy and UX writing?

Occam's Razor affects content strategy and UX writing through its promotion of simplicity and clarity. It guides UX writers to create concise, straightforward content that directly addresses user needs. Designers avoid unnecessary jargon or complex explanations. This approach ensures that the content is easily understandable for users to enhance the user experience by making information accessible and actionable. As it focuses on essential information and eliminates superfluous details, content strategy becomes more effective. It helps users achieve their goals with minimal effort.

Watch our Master Class with Author, Speaker and UX Writer at Google, Torrey Podmajersky for in-depth insights into UX writing.

How can UX designers avoid oversimplification while they apply Occam's Razor?

UX designers can avoid oversimplification when they apply Occam's Razor if they carefully evaluate user needs and ensure all essential functionalities are present and accessible. They balance simplicity with usability, and recognize that if they remove too much, it can harm the user experience. Designers focus on the core user tasks and provide clear pathways to complete them, without stripping away helpful context or guidance. This approach ensures that while designs are streamlined, they still fully support user goals and preferences.

Take our course UI Design Patterns for Successful Software for essential and in-depth insights into how to design successfully for users and factor in their needs properly.

How do designers prioritize features using Occam's Razor during product development?

Designers prioritize features using Occam's Razor during product development when they focus on simplicity and user needs. They evaluate each feature's impact on the overall user experience, and prefer those that offer significant benefits without adding unnecessary complexity. This process means that designers critically assess the value each feature adds and select only those essential for achieving the product's goals. When they do so, designers ensure the final product is streamlined and user-friendly, and meets users' core requirements efficiently.

Take our course Emotional Design—How to Make Products People Will Love for essential and in-depth insights into how to design products that users will truly enjoy.

What are highly cited scientific articles on the subject of Occam’s Razor?

Sudjatmoko, A. A., Susanto, A. A., Jayaseputra, J. A., Purwanto, E. S., & Sari, A. C. (2022). The Influence of Consumer Interest on the Use of UI and UX in the E-Commerce Application. In 2022 4th International Conference on Cybernetics and Intelligent System (ICORIS). IEEE. https://doi.org/10.1109/ICORIS56080.2022.10031397

This publication delves into the critical role of User Interface (UI) and User Experience (UX) in the realm of e-commerce applications, with a particular focus on their impact on consumer interest. The authors argue that well-implemented UI and UX not only facilitate smoother interactions between users and applications but also significantly enhance user satisfaction and engagement. Conversely, inadequacies in UI and UX design can obstruct information interaction and foster user frustration. Occam’s Razor receives attention in this piece.

What are some highly regarded books about Occam’s Razor?

Epic Love Books. (2019). Occam's Razor Scientific Principle Journal: Scientist | Science Experiments Notebook. https://www.amazon.com/Occams-Razor-Scientific-Principle-Journal/dp/1796856452/ref=sr_1_7?crid=3EG1512759FN1&dib=eyJ2IjoiMSJ9.jF6sNBgEa2-TMcmGdp6AZj50T4Ji9_rViH__F44PViBWCTIubUJFb4U3osWcIQoF-QZO0Y686y3vEbQKFhkbPqzC4yXn4AbtLg3ii0fdmPscFreLh8Waf_C2BjsBJEHkXIAgQGmiAT1W2cvuiw6gSN37AZhfxKOqDvZITPFf9RFOyX3znKyIYZtgVY_FrexzXgKO7JDxv8xjjB9NXr78klfjOvE-7HS11FvAgmjJXos.PYVUSRYuoVbX_gpMjdMax8EPC2FyLhxzIWsPdz-KtQE&dib_tag=se&keywords=occam%27s+razor&qid=1708368080&s=books&sprefix=occam%27s+razor%2Cstripbooks%2C259&sr=1-7

The journal encourages users to apply this principle in their work, promoting clear thinking and effective problem-solving. Its design is particularly useful for chemistry or biology teachers tracking experiment notes, embodying the principle of simplicity in scientific exploration.

Literature on Occam’s Razor

Here’s the entire UX literature on Occam’s Razor by the Interaction Design Foundation, collated in one place:

Learn more about Occam’s Razor

Take a deep dive into Occam’s Razor with our course Affordances: Designing Intuitive User Interfaces .

Affordances are a key concept for designers. If you want to build products that are intuitive and easy to use, fully understanding the relationship between the human mind and technology is crucial. An “affordance” refers to the possibility of an action on an object; for instance, we say that an elevator button affords being pressed, and a chair affords being sat on. The concept was popularized by HCI (human-computer interaction) expert Don Norman in the late 1980s, and it has since played an essential role for user experience professionals and researchers. Understanding this term is essential for anyone who wants to get a deeper appreciation of what it means for a product to be “intuitive.”

Taking this course will teach you both the theory of affordances and also how to build instantly perceptible affordances into your own designs. Your users should be able to identify the actions afforded by a design with speed and accuracy. Thus, the better you can make your affordances, the more likely you will prevent the user from becoming frustrated (which can happen very quickly). In order to achieve this, you as a designer must appreciate how users perceive the world and how experience, context, culture, constraints and other factors affect our ability to detect the possibilities of actions on offer. This is at the heart of why those interested in a design career and established designers alike must gain a firm grounding in the meaning and potential application of affordances as a designer’s tool.

Throughout the course, we identify the major milestones in the evolution of the term “affordance” and outline how it applies to practical user experience (UX) design. Along the way, we look at the affordances of objects in the real world and screen-based interfaces so as to reinforce the concepts and principles covered in each lesson. You will soon realize how vital a solid grasp of affordances is—the name of the game is to make designs that users can take to naturally and without having to hesitate to ask themselves, “What happens if I do this?”.

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