Minimalism at Tekom tcworld 2012
I’m attending Tekom tcworld 2012, in Wiesbaden. Jang Graat is about to present a session called, “Write less – say more. The added value of minimalism”. I’ve read quite a bit about minimalism, and am looking forward to hearing Jang’s ideas on applying the methodology to make things easier for our readers.
This is the blurb for Jang’s session:
In the internet age, users are swamped with information. Instead of telling users what you know, you should literally put yourself in their position and figure out what they need to know. And then see how you can make that information available as concise and clear as you can. After the initial extra effort, it will make your job, and your user’s lives, a lot easier and more productive.
The principle of minimalism is fairly simple, and is not changing much. Jang plans to give us the basic principles and what they mean.
We started by watching a clip of a Vin Diesel action movie, where couldn’t find in the user manual what his car could do. Jang says Vin Diesel is our typical user. The typical user is in an emergency. They need one answer to one question. And if they don’t find the answer, the world is going to end.
Many of us are still writing lots of documentation that people will never need. Our users are suffering from information overload. A lot of it is useless. The good stuff is hidden by layers that most people will never use.
Put there only what the user needs. That’s minimalism.
John M Carroll at IBM took the minimalist practices, already applied in interior design and other disciplines, and applied them to technical documentation.
WilliaM of Ockham (philosopher in 13th century) said you shouldn’t introduce a new element unless you really need to. This is Ockham’s razor. Minimise the number of assumptions you make, and build your theory around that.
You make sure you have the minimum set of tools that you need for a certain situation. The last four words are important. Compare the set of tools a repairman takes up onto a roof. He won’t take his torch, for example, if it’s daytime.
Advantages of minimalism
- Improves the signal-to-noise ratio: Removes noise, maximises signal
- Minimises cost
- Minimises effort, for the technical writer, and for the user trying to find information
- Minimises support effort
- Maximise clarity
The most important thing is: Topics.
Typically, documentation answers 3 or 4 questions at the same time. For example, let’s say you want to add a row to a table in Word. Find the topic in the help – it typically starts by describing tables, then tells you there are a few ways to add a row, and also tells you about columns.
Rule of minimalism: One topic answers one question.
The most important question you can answer is: how do I do this. If you want to, you can add extra topic(s) that describe how stuff works.
Give your content a very clear, recognisable structure. The user can get used to this structure, and then find information easily. Example: Recipe books. This is a minimalist practice, because it minimises the user’s effort.
Amount of content
Minimise the number of words you write.
Remove repetition, for example don’t repeat the title text in the introduction of the topic. Don’t use words like “first”, “then”.
Use annotated diagrams where possible, instead of lots of words to describe the location of things.
Control your language. You can use a specific type of controlled English, or do it yourself. This minimises ambiguity.
Use separate steps, not joined by “and”, unless the user has to do two actions simultaneously.
Maximise safetyl For example, in documentation about machinery, safety is a big issue.
On the other hand, don’t exaggerate. Exaggeration has the effect of devaluing the message. That is unsafe. (The machine industry has a strict classification of the severity of messages.)
Don’t have too many warnings, errors, cautions. That is not safe.
Jang described how minimalism maximises efficiency, making it easier to meet deadlines. Production becomes more efficient, because there’s less to produce. (Think, printed manuals.) You minimise the time people need to find information, thus maximising their efficiency.
Focus on users
This is the main point that Jang wants to make: Focus on the users. This is the main lesson in any approach to minimalism. Put yourself in their shoes when you decide what to write.
Jang has a pleasant, restful speaking style. His slides were pleasantly minimalist. Thanks Jang.