Sharpen your product’s focus with the Occam’s razor


Occam’s razor, also known as the principle of parsimony, is a philosophical construct to dissect a problem to its bare essentials.

The principle finds references since the time of Aristotle, but was made popular by William of Ockham, who stated ‘Plurality must never be posited without necessity.’

That sounds complex, but has been used as a heuristic to guide scientists on development of models.

Stated simply, the Occam’s razor suggests you shave off unnecessary assumptions to keep the base assumption set simple.

As a founder or product manager, the Occam’s razor is a great reference when deciding on your product feature set and minimizing feature creep.

Refine your basic hypotheses

Every product is built on the basis of hypotheses you make about the market, users, competitors’ efforts and a variety of factors.

Unlike engineering, there is no determinism around these, and they are usually your best reading of the current situation.

Most failed products start off on incorrect assumptions. As the product development proceeds, people layer on top of these assumptions and the end result satisfies none.

Going by the Occam’s razor, try answering these base questions as the core hypotheses for your product:

  • Who is your core consumer?

Try focusing on the core consumer segment while designing your first version. You may find other consumer segments may also benefit, but trying to build a product to solve everyone’s need is the biggest source for feature creep.

  • What need are you solving for them?

Try seeing what is the basic motivation for them to purchase your product. Is there a functional need that you’re solving or an emotional need? Is the need felt on a daily basis or a monthly basis? How are they satisfying the need today?

Try sticking to one core need. Many apps try doing multiple things, and end up looking more like an OS than an app. Yes, the user can do X, Y, Z with your app, but if they do not flow together towards solving a common need, chances are that s/he will find the product too confusing and stop using it.

  • Why would they choose your product to solve their problem?

Being free is no guarantee that users will adopt your product. For any product, users have to learn a new way of doing things – meaning they have to invest time and energy in your product.

Your product may be first to the market – in which case customer education may be critical, or an early follower – in which case you may have to differentiate against your lead competitors.

Spend some time outlining what is a differentiator worth your user’s while.

  • What market factors affect your product’s success?

Much as we would like to think otherwise, market factors can play a make-or-break role. You may have a great m-commerce product, but customers may not be comfortable with putting their credit card info on the mobile. Or maybe the current regulations prohibit transactions over a certain limit.

Many of these factors may affect the gestation period of your product. If not planned well, you may be in danger of having to shut down before your ‘first’ big hit, and grimace when a later player walks away with the spoils.

Think through what environment is required for your product to be adopted. This will also help allocate your efforts: maybe marketing and ecosystem building is more critical than just design and product features.

Answers to these can bring a lot of focus to your product development and lop off unnecessary features that do not have the same impact.

You can also use the Occam’s razor to minimize stakeholders for each decision – another key reason for feature creep – or forplanning your product design.

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