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Occam’s razor: Applying philosophy in design

Let’s take a closer look at the various statements used to interpret this theory and how each of them can be applied to design –


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Vasudha Mamtani

2 years ago | 3 min read

While reading a thriller novel the other day, I came upon the term ‘Occam’s razor’. Occam’s razor is a principle in philosophy that states that “entities should not be multiplied beyond necessity”. What this means in loosely translated terms is — The simplest explanation for some phenomenon is more likely to be accurate than more complicated explanations.

It blew my mind that several centuries ago, a renowned philosopher announced to the world to, quite literally, keep it simple.

As this article states wonderfully,

“Simple does not mean ignoring important facts in an attempt to reduce the complexity. It requires open mindedness to seek a better solution with less complexity and less assumptions, exploring a better way of doing things.”

I have always believed that philosophy theories from eons ago can be applied to modern-day design. Occam’s razor happens to be one principle that us designers can draw inspiration from.

In this piece, I try to equate several interpretations of this philosophy to stages in our design process and how we can imbibe versions of this philosophy into our solutions.

Let’s take a closer look at the various statements used to interpret this theory and how each of them can be applied to design –

1. The explanation requiring the fewest assumptions is most likely to be correct — [Discover]

To make sure that the experience we’re creating for our users, it is essential that we know exactly who the users are as well as what their goals and pain points are.

Before embarking on the design phase of our process, we should gather all information that we can to understand our users so that we’re able to create an experience that is a perfect fit for them; an experience where we make the least possible assumptions about their needs.

In the Discovery phase of design, we do exactly that. We conduct studies, collect requirements and data, interview users, and set up a foundation for the upcoming design process. By doing so, we try to ensure that not much is left to guess.

Doing solid groundwork at the very beginning will make it easier to proceed with fewer assumptions, thus staying true to Occam’s razor.

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2. If you have two theories that both explain the observed facts, then you should use the simplest until more evidence comes along — [Define]

While creating experiences for the user, it is important to consider design patterns that they are used to. It is natural to want to come up with the most creative solution for the problem at hand, but we need to be sure to not re-invent the wheel.

We should leverage intuitive patterns that already exist in interfaces so as to maintain the user’s mental model. If the users are accustomed to performing an action a certain way, we should capitalise on the simpler solution unless it is absolutely necessary to move away from that pattern.

So, by defining the most simple and convenient solution for the user, and picking it over other complex solutions we can incorporate a version of Occam’s razor in our design processes. Read more about this hypothesis here.

3. It is futile to do with more what can be done with fewer — [Design/Test]

We’ve all learned about being ‘quick and dirty’ with our designs, but rarely do we practice it. When moving into the design phase of our process, this is the principle that we should learn to imbibe.

If we choose to follow this particular translation of Occam’s razor, we should work towards investing lesser time in perfecting our concepts, and more time in testing them. Since we have established how important it is to assume less, testing the concepts with our audience to gauge whether the solution we are trying to propose is apt or not.

Frugality is a principle being adopted by a lot of organisations to motivate their employees to achieve more with less. Not only does this help the business grow, it also allows teams to invest their time and energy in the right direction.

Occam’s razor as a principle has and will have a lot of translations. It is up to us to understand and adopt this philosophy into our designs (and perhaps our lives). The must-read book for all designers ‘Don’t make me think’ can be considered a rendition of this very philosophy.

So trying working in a little bit of philosophy the next time you’re designing, and always remember to KISS (keep it simple, silly).

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Vasudha Mamtani


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