Designing with Occam's Razor

How a classic problem-solving principle can help improve our designs.

Complicating the simple is commonplace in web design — even the experienced designer will find themselves reaching for an overly complex solution from time-to-time. It’s easy to get carried away with details that we assume will enhance the user’s experience, when in reality they have the potential to distract and confuse them. The challenge is to make the complicated simple, and to do this we need a guiding principle; one that can cut through complexity and guide our decision making process.

The Principle

Occam’s Razor is a problem-solving principle attributed to William of Ockham, an English Franciscan friar and scholastic philosopher and theologian during the Medieval period. The name derives from Ockham’s surname plus ‘razor’, which refers to the distinguishing between two hypotheses either by shaving away unnecessary assumptions or cutting apart two similar conclusions. It states that among competing hypotheses that predict equally well, the one with the fewest assumptions should be selected.

Ockham didn’t invent “the razor”, but he used it to great extent in his own work. The principle has since been applied in a number of fields that include science, biology, medicine, probability theory and statistics.

Applying Occam’s Razor

So what does this have to do with design? The answer lies in a modern interpretation of Occam’s Razor: “Entities must not be multiplied beyond necessity”. When applied to our work as designers, Occam’s Razor can be adopted as a guiding principle that informs our decisions and keeps us from reaching for a complex solution when a simpler one is sufficient.

By only introducing complexity when it is necessary, we can ensure that our designs stay lean and void of superfluous elements that do not add value to the user’s experience.

Keep It Simple

One way to leverage the principle of Occam’s Razor is evaluate each and every design element based on it’s necessity. We must constantly ask ourselves when designing: “What is the minimum amount of UI that will allow the content to best found and effectively communicate to the user?”. It’s easy to make the mistake of thinking that you‘re enhancing the experience by sprinkling in delightful animations or hiding away navigation in an offscreen menu. The reality is you might be introducing unnecessary complexity that potentially can become an obstacle.

While there’s techniques for reducing design complexity, the best approach is to avoid it in the first place. The key is to start with the simplest solution and only introduce complexity if needed. Our UI should reinforce the content message, eliminate any barriers, and not impede the ability to traverse the content.

“Good design is as little design as possible”.

 Dieter Rams

Edit Ruthlessly

Another way to apply the principle of Occam’s Razor is to be aggressive when editing your work. Every design element and pattern should be evaluated on it’s effectiveness, and edited if a simpler solution exists. If it doesn’t have meaning or provide value, it should be altogether removed.

The most effective method I’ve found for evaluating my work is through design critiques. These iterative sessions provide an opportunity to initiate discussion and get feedback on design decisions from your peers. They force us to articulate why we made specific design decisions, and in the process strengthen our work by identifying spots that aren’t as clear or effective.

“Perfection is achieved not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away”.

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

This simple principle can help to inform our design decisions and keep us from reaching for a complex solution when a simpler one is sufficient. By shaving away complexity, our designs will have clarity and be more impactful. Users will appreciate that you’ve eliminated obstacles and streamlined the interface, allowing for them to find what they need faster and more efficiently.