Product Leaders

with Adam Nash

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Einstein's Razor

Einstein said, “Make things as simple as possible, but not simpler.”

Adam Nash

CEO of Wealthfront, Product Expert, Founder

Lessons Learned

Avoid the paradox of choice.

The fewer entry points, the more modality you introduce.

There is a price to simplicity; it is not free.


Lesson: Product Leaders with Adam Nash

Step #7 Einstein's Razor: Einstein said, “Make things as simple as possible, but not simpler.”

Occam's razor is the basic scientific principle that says if you have two explanations, two theories that both equally predict outcomes, take the one that's simpler. That makes a lot of sense in a field where you are building hypothesis on hypothesis, theory on theory, you want the simplest tree possible. So if two theories both explain an outcome equally, take the simpler one. It's a pretty good way to go. It's not always true, but it's a pretty good directional bias.

Einstein is attributed with a lot of quotes. There are a few people like this in history. It turns out he didn't exactly say this, so I am going to paraphrase, because what he was talking about was actually specific to physics. The basic idea was make things as simple as possible, but not simpler. You can take simple too far. Simple usually takes the form, in software, of cutting out entry points and cutting down the number of choices people have to make. That's good, because the paradox of choice sets in, it's very hard to make a decision. If you give people too many options, they feel uncomfortable picking any of them.

There is an opposing problem though, that the fewer entry points you have the more modality you tend to introduce, and the more deep trees of expertise users have to develop, to find out how to get to every function. So there is a balancing act between entry points and the depth of the tree, that most information architects know about.

The way that I frame this in the blog post is I talk a little bit about the original iPhone. Apple worked really hard to simplify the interface in a number of different ways. The biggest thing they did with the touch screen, is they tried to get to a device that had fewer buttons. Remember feature phones, if anyone still remembers feature phones – they had over 12 buttons on them, qwerty keyboards which were coming up fast because of the BlackBerry - oh my God, how many buttons does that thing have? It's unbelievable. They were all overloaded too, space to do the @ sign. All sorts of little tricks.

Apple came out and said "Oh, we're just going to have one physical button on the face of the phone, but you'll notice they didn't make it zero, which they easily could have. The reason was that Apple, being a hardware company, has some appreciation for the benefits of the tactile experience. Things you might want to do site unseen and it turned out that powering on the phone was one of them.

Now, I don't think Apple necessarily got this right. There is a lot of modality in the iPhone, anyone who has used the iPhone now realizes that modality has crept in. Where it's like if you double swipe and hit the button twice and do this incantation, and Siri comes up and says "Hey", but that's the price you pay for simplicity.

The thing I always point out to people on the iPhone is this wasn't unique to the iPhone, but the iPhone was probably the most attention-getting phone with this feature. They actually added a hardware button. Actually a switch, not a button. On most phones in 2007, the way that you would mute the phone is that you would open up the phone, go into menu, go into settings, go into volume and then hit mute. There was some variant to that. It might be four levels deep or three levels deep, but it was a disaster. I mean I had a Nokia phone for ever, even a BlackBerry, it took for ever. What that meant is when you had annoying thing where you forgot to turn off the ringer and all of a sudden it went off in a meeting or a movie or that sort of thing – you're fishing in your pocket, you are trying to do it, it's a disaster, you'd never beat it.

Apple actually put that in a hardware switch and it was amazing. Talk about delight features. It was amazing how much people talked about that when the phone came out. This idea that you can reach in your pocket and shut it off without even looking at it. That was not simplicity per se. You can stretch the definition of simplicity to say that it was. It really wasn't. It was recognizing that by reducing a bunch of entry points, they had given them the opportunity to offer a different one. That one was more important and delightful to users, in terms of their general experience.

The reason I bring up Einstein's Razor is just because when you get into these arguments, just recognize there is a price to simplicity, it's not free. The bias always has to be the cutting back, but there are good reasons to add things, and don't be afraid to do that and experiment with them – especially if you are good about pruning away the ones that don't work.

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