Occam’s Razor: A Great Principle for Designers

Lex parsimoniae is the Latin expression of what is known in English as Occam’s Razor, a philosophical rule of thumb that has guided some of the world’s best and brightest minds (including Isaac Newton).

It is named after the 14th-century logician and theologian William of Ockham.

But what the heck does Occam’s Razor have to do with web design? I’m glad you asked. To put it plainly, Occam’s Razor states that the simplest explanation is usually true.

For our purposes, to use Occam’s Razor is to do something in the simplest manner possible because simpler is usually better.

In this article, we’ll show you how to use Occam’s Razor to create better websites and to enhance the user experience, both for yourself and your clients.

Before we dive into the details, let’s look at a real-world example of Occam’s Razor as used by a company whose simple and effective products you are certainly familiar with: 37signals.

 

A Real-World Example

37signals founders Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hanson are the brains behind some of the web’s most interesting products and technologies. Among their small yet influential ranks, they practice and preach a simplicity akin to Occam’s Razor.

It has served them well over the past decade. What began as a three-person Web design consulting firm in 1999 now has three million worldwide users of its software products (which include Basecamp, Campfire and Highrise). Basecamp alone generates millions of dollars for the company, and the company employs just 16 people. Did I mention that they are responsible for developing the wildly popular open-source programming framework Ruby on Rails? Here’s a quote to drive it home (from Rework, the duo’s latest book):

Lots of people hate us because our products do less than the competition’s. They’re insulted when we refuse to include their pet feature. But we’re just as proud of what our products don’t do as we are of what they do. We design them to be simple because we believe most software is too complex: too many features, too many buttons, too much confusion.


This business case makes clear, and Jason Fried would probably tell you so himself: doing things the simple way makes perfect business sense. It’s more than logical: it’s smart. Here’s how to make simple work for you.

 

Simple Web Design

Designing simply for the web is about removing barriers. If a user wouldn’t know where to click, tell them. If there are too many navigational choices, eliminate some. If the background image distracts from the message, tone it down.

In architecture, a cool design should not compromise the strength of the structure or make it difficult to get from point A to point B. Similarly, a cool web design shouldn’t compromise the clarity of the message you are trying to convey or make it difficult for the user to navigate from page A to page B.

When your goals are specific—such as converting visitors into customers or getting users to initiate contact—anticipating and eliminating potential obstacles is crucial, especially during the design phase. Too often designers build something cool without first figuring out how to achieve their goals or anticipating how easy the design will be to navigate, which can lead to constant redesigns, perpetual tweaking, lost time and lost money.

Simple goes hand in hand with easy. The next time you open Photoshop to begin a new design, ask yourself questions like these:

  • Would a non-designer or non-programmer find this interface confusing?
  • Do I need all of this information along the top that pushes the newsletter sign-up form below the fold?
  • How easy will users be able to access the information they want?
  • Are there too many choices?
  • Will this interface be usable for my target audience, a 70-year-old person or someone with partial blindness?

You get the point.

Simple designs are good for another reason: differentiation. If you want your website to survive in a niche dominated by over-the-top glitz and glam, create some contrast by building a simple layout.

 

Simple Coding

A buzzword floating around the web right now related to coding is “lightweight,” which is just another way of saying “simple.”

It’s common knowledge that simple code loads faster and generally encounters fewer problems. If you could implement a solution using lightweight code rather than a bloated alternative, the choice would be obvious. What keeps developers from doing it then?

Bloated code has two main causes. One is laziness. People love to copy and paste. Code libraries such as jQuery and frameworks such as the 960 Grid System are useful, but they have fostered a lazy mentality, which can lead to bloated code. How can you be sure your website is as simple as it can be if someone else has written the code?

Just as a mechanic should be familiar with what’s under the hood, so a developer should be familiar with the code running their website. What if something breaks? How would you fix it? Just because a solution works doesn’t mean that it is the simplest or best way to handle your case.

The other cause of bloated code is lack of knowledge. Many designers and developers—even some who claim to be advanced—have become stuck using programs like Dreamweaver to code their websites, and they sometimes rely on them to produce code for them.

Sure, these programs can produce code, but they don’t always do it efficiently; they simply execute a command based on what they were programmed to do. Instead, by using tricks such as CSS shorthand, you can optimize code for faster loading times, which will ultimately improve the user experience.

 

Simple E-Commerce

When it comes to selling online, simplicity should knock content right off the throne and assume its rightful place as king of the realm of e-commerce. Why? Because what you’re selling won’t matter if making a purchase is too difficult. If making purchases is easy, fewer shopping carts will be abandoned and more sales will be made.

So, what can you do to make online shopping simpler? While each experience should be unique and tailored to the needs of the company and its users, there are a few easy ways to boost the effectiveness of an online store:

  • Make the search box prominent. Searching will probably be the preferred navigation method of many users, especially if you offer hundreds or thousands of products for sale.
  • Don’t waste people’s time by making them duplicate information. For example, make it easy for users to indicate that their shipping address is the same as their billing address by adding a simple check box to the form.
  • Don’t crowd products too closely together.
  • Don’t annoy shoppers with unexpected pop-ups and hover tips. There’s a fine line between hand-holding users and trusting them to do things on their own.

 

Simple Web Copy

The majority of websites rely on text to share their services, products and ideas. Doesn’t it make sense to phrase things so that they’re easily understandable? Remember, simplicity appeals to everyone regardless of their sophistication or ability.

The familiar KISS acronym (keep it simple, stupid) should hang on a giant plaque above the desk of anyone responsible for web copy. Your website is accessible from just about every corner of the globe, which means that simple copy is the best way to target the widest possible audience.

Forget about dictionary-style definitions and cramming keywords down people’s throats (those taste good only to search engines). Say what needs to be said as briefly as you can. Trying to sound smart on the web is just plain stupid: you’ll leave readers confused, and a more interesting website is always just a few clicks away.

 

Simple Business Practices

Sometimes you can make things simpler and easier for you and your client; other times you can make things simpler and easier for just one of you. If you have to choose, favor your client.

Online shopping carts are abandoned when things get too complicated; so too do clients abandon working relationships that are too difficult to maintain.

Ask yourself questions like: How easy am I to contact? How easy would it be for me to pay my own invoice? (If you wouldn’t want to pay your own invoice, think how daunting it must be for your clients, who aren’t tech-savvy.) If your customers have to press three buttons and wait on hold before speaking with you, perhaps you should rethink your phone system.

 

Conclusion

I can’t write about simplicity without mentioning Apple. Simplicity has real value, and it can be measured in cold hard cash. That much is clear to Apple’s CEO, Steve Jobs, whose personal net worth now tops $5 billion. He has delivered some of the world’s coolest, most user-friendly gadgets.

Simplicity is built into the iPhone and iPad; each device features only one button on the front. The MacBook is made from a single piece of aluminum. And simplicity is why so many designers imitate Apple’s website (the white space, the navigation, the large photography).

Apple even extends simplicity to its packaging. When I recently replaced my Dell workstation with an iMac, my jaw dropped as I shifted my gaze between the single power cord coming out of the back of the Mac to the pile of cords snaking along the floor next to the old Dell. That’s the power of simplicity. The team in Cupertino, California, puts Occam’s Razor into action and reaps the benefits.

You might ask… why would an advanced designer or developer want to simplify? Isn’t that regressing? I would say that while beginners must use a simple product because that’s what they are capable of handling, this isn’t necessarily the best case for simplicity. Pros choose to impose constraints on their work so that they can create a better product.

It might be time to rethink the way you design for the Web. Experiencing a website shouldn’t just be easy: it should be painless. Make navigation effortless so that users focus more on the content than on how to access it.


Written exclusively for WDD by Chris McConnell. He is an entrepreneur, designer and author who co-founded the design firm Brandeluxe and writes regularly on his blog, Freelance Review. You can also connect with Chris on Twitter.

Do you apply the Occam’s Razor principle in your designs? Why or why not? Share your opinion below…

  • http://hexacreative.web.id Nafi Putrawan

    His like simple style. And me too. Many top web designer like minimalist. Am i top designer? :hammer

  • http://www.mekonta.co.uk John Cowen

    I think most (decent) designers get the importance of simplicity. Unfortunately our employers, too often, don’t. I’m always fighting against the notion that by presenting more information to a user, they are going to come away with more information. The success of the likes of 37 Signals & Apple should clearly demonstrate this philosophy, but it goes against the beliefs of so many directors whose background is in more traditional offline business models.

    And sadly they don’t like to have these beliefs challenged by web designers. We’re generally not seen as having the ‘business savvy’ to be making worthwhile comments in this area.

    • Ricardo Rocha

      I agree with you, people don’t want to understand or believe in what we say. I hate when that happens to me, we say don’t use too many stuff in that design, they do, and days later they remove a bunch of items that are not doing anything. And that’s not the worst case scenario, the worst is when things get published and then some friend of the boss tells him that the work is too confusing.

    • http://www.swaydesign.co.uk jono253

      I read somewhere once that its easy to make a simple thing complicated, but true skill lies in making a complicated thing simple. I think there are a lot of clients that are afraid to leave information out incase the message doesn’t hit home, it takes guts as well as skill to make a minimalistic design.

  • http://soundcabin.co.za Kutlwano

    I love the article. Its quite inspiring especially if you quite new to this principle. I was running for my dictionary trying to see whether its made up or in fact something that exists in English. Anyway, I guess designers are under pressure from society to over endulge as it has become something we are expected to do. It will however take a bit of a while to adopt such a principle but if one is interested in making a much more client-gaining-oriented approach this is quite the path to follow. I’m going to try it out and see if this is really what I have been missing!

  • http://www.jordanwalker.net Jordan Walker

    Very unique post loaded with value, always error on the side of simplicity.

  • http://www.tyler-dawson.com/blog/ Tyler Dawson

    Couldn’t agree more. I’ve been trying to use the same principle recently and have seen a definite increase in the quality of my work. I used to think that “simplicity” somehow meant a design couldn’t be as exciting, but I’ve found that if anything, simple designs make the small details even more effective.

  • http://n/a sjlain

    Wow, this was an eye-opening article. I think generally, people (myself included) go above and beyond to make things complicated. I’m one of those beginners and I think that from a beginner’s standpoint, we tend to bog things down with complexity because we’re learning and trying to push the envelope. It’s another instance where bigger isn’t always better. I thank you for sharing your thoughts and opening MY eyes. Go bigger by keeping things simple. Something that I will be mindful from here on and out.

  • http://aevumincorruptus.com AevumDesign

    I agree that simplicity is overlooked in many of today’s websites. Less is better.

  • http://www.pscyhed.be/wordpress Darkened Soul

    keep it simple
    excuse me if I KISS the sky ;)

  • http://www.freelancereview.net Chris McConnell

    Thanks for the opportunity to write this article for WDD!

  • http://mcdg.tumblr.com Mighty Max

    Very nice article Chris. This is the kind of information that makes you a click in your mind. Really enjoyed it, thanks

  • http://www.eastdevonit.co.uk Dan

    Great article thanks

    You’ve put into words exactly what I think, but all to often find hard to explain!!

    I often use the K.I.S.S principle, but will now have to work out the correct pronunciation of Occam !

  • http://tim-gale.co.uk Tim Gale

    Great Article,

    Simplicity is always best.

  • http://www.tylertermini.com Tyler

    Great article!

    I’m a total advocate of simplicity and minimalism. I also think it’s harder to pull off than normal, information packed websites, because it becomes a matter of elimination. In normal work, you can add decoration, extra copy, and many options for the user. But with a minimalistic work, you must pick and choose what isn’t necessary, what you deem is worthy enough to be part of the design. If you don’t pay enough attention to this process, a misplaced element could break the design.

    So far, simplicity and minimalism has been the hardest challenge for me as a web designer, but the rewards are gratifying.

    • http://n/a sjlain

      It also seems that if you are going to go the minimal route, you have to be really careful not to let your layout feel empty. It has to feel minimal, but strong and full at the same time. It is a delicate balance, that the slightest feather could tip the scale. That may be why minimalistic designs are not tackled as much. Afraid to tip the scales.

  • McCoy Pauley

    THANK you!!!

    There wouldn’t BE all this bloatslop on the net if people learned to WRITE code. The only thing you need is a text editor and a brain. Instead, we get 8 billion idiots using FrontPage, loading massive libraries (99% of whose functions are unused on a given page/site) and substituting eye-candy and blather for meaningful CONTENT.

    If you can’t write your own code from scratch, and don’t CRUNCH it as a matter of pride, don’t call yourself a coder. You’re just another button-pushing punk.

  • Matt Duhamel

    You must have gotten the wrong PC to be flummoxed by the wires coming out the back of your PC.

    Or, are you so easily mollified by an all-in-one design that the sight of a few cords makes you rage?

  • http://www.chrisjanus.net Chris Janus

    very good points, as i have been continuing to aim in more simplistic directions with my own designs lately. i am also a drummer, and similar ideas apply in the music realm as well. many newer musicians commonly ‘overplay’ or try to show how technical they can play just to show their abilities. however, this can just end up just completely ruining the music though when a simple part would have more than fit and made the music special and enjoyable to others. a simple AC/DC beat definitely has its own place & meaning in music, and simplicity with web design is not so different.

    thanks!

    • http://www.tylertermini.com Tyler

      I am a drummer too, and I totally agree you. I found that the simplest forms of jazz (Something like Royal Crown Revue or Count Basie) are one of the most pleasant things to listen to.

  • http://winstonmuller.com Winston Muller

    Very well said, its the same reason I keep my own website clean and simple.

  • http://www.copestylin.com Marc

    Thanks for the interesting post.
    I definately used this method recently on my webcartoon & blog:

    http://cowtexas.blogspot.com

    Before my re-design it was moving slowly towards typical blog status: with links galore on the sidebar. Until I realised there was just too much going on. I stripped it down to the bare essentials and it seems to have encouraged people interacting on the site.

  • http://adjacentconcepts.com Blain Smith

    This a great article and covers a lot of perfect examples of how this principle is used in practice. You can chalk us up as another company that practice what we preach.

  • http://www.crearedesign.co.uk/ Jarkko Sibenberg

    Good post and good comments as well.

    I feel uneasy if I paste a piece of code I don’t understand myself. I always need to go through it and try to figure out which command is doing what and why. It’s the only way to learn use it properly when needed.

  • http://www.vivoocreative.co.uk Web Design Nottingham

    I agree with “less is better”

    Clean and simple is of 2010 :-)

  • http://john.onolan.org JohnONolan

    Purely out of interest: Why is it called Occam’s Razor, if his name was William Ockham? Very interesting!

    • Martin

      Here’s my understanding of it.
      There are different ways of spelling that name (kind of like Koran vs Qu’ran)–and “Occam” is more simple than “Ockham.” Using the razor principle, it was natural to go with that spelling.

  • http://gunisigibalaban.com/ Gunisigi Balaban

    I can’t agree more..

  • http://interactivelogic.net/ Evan K. Stone | InteractiveLogic

    Thanks for sharing this great principle! Much appreciated!

  • http://gordanbos.com web design bury

    Very good post. Simplicity in navigation is one of the most important factors of a good website!

  • http://www.redcliffedental.com dentist wirral

    When I employed designer to build my first website I wanted as many features as possible on the main page. Somebody pointed out that but it was too late. When I built my second website I had different approach and things are much better now.

  • http://www.aniruddhakadam.info Aniruddha Kadam

    A very thought provoking article. Surely is the power of simple design far effective and powerful as opposed to flashy thingamajigs and complex architectures.
    *Thumbs up* for the same