Minimalism (stc14)

This week I’m attending STC Summit 2014, the annual conference of the Society for Technical Communication. Where feasible, I’ll take notes from the sessions I attend, and share them on this blog. All credit goes to the presenters, and any mistakes are mine.

Barbara Beresford‘s session was entitled “Minimalism—It’s Really About the User!” Here is an extract from Barbara’s summary of her session on Lanyrd:

Minimalism is a widely accepted and influential methodology in technical communications, but it is not a simple method to understand or apply. John M. Carroll’s two books on minimalism: The Nurnberg Funnel: Designing Minimalist Instruction for Practical Computer Skills (1990) and Minimalism Beyond the Nurnberg Funnel (1998), provide the best source for the ideas behind the theory.

Minimalism begins with understanding your users—in particular, how they need to use your software in order to accomplish their specific business goals. Designing content that really addresses this problem is notably more difficult than simply documenting the features of your software. But tackling this problem can help you develop much more usable content!

Introducing minimalism

“Minimalism” – It’s seemingly a simple word, says Barbara, but it’s surprisingly difficult to get your head around it.

Barbara talked about her path to minimalism. She says she has some “special expertise as an impatient user”, which gives her a special insight into minimalism. This got a laugh of recognition from the audience. She also gave us a useful list of influences, including books, articles and methodologies. These include DITA, content strategy, Information Mapping, Every Page is Page One by Mark Baker, and more.

Update on 14 June 2014: The above paragraph previously stated, erroneously: “She also gave us a useful list of references to books, articles and methodologies that have influenced minimalism.” I have now changed it to say, “She also gave us a useful list of influences, including books, articles and methodologies.”

Minimalism is a theory of learning developed by John Carroll at IBM in the 1980s. He used the term the Nurnberg Funnel to describe the way people learn. They’re not passive when learning. They want to drive their learning experience, based on what they already know and what they want to achieve.

His study found that when people are handed a comprehensive set of instructions, only approximately 1 out of 20 follow the instructions from beginning to end. The others jump around, do their own thing, make mistakes, get lost, and have trouble finding their way back. People like to do things their own way.

In response, Carroll decided to design tutorials that start users immediately on meaningful and realistic tasks – things they needed to do. He also wanted to reduce the amount of content, and make errors and error recovery less traumatic.

So instead of comprehensive coverage, he aimed for selective coverage based on the user’s goals.

Barbara used the terms “minimalist design” and “systems design” to compare the two approaches. (At first I was not quite sure why the term “systems design” was used here. But later during the presentation, I think I know: it denotes a manual whose structure is based on the structure of the user interface it’s describing, rather than on user tasks.)

Minimalist design

Marta talked through these points of minimalist design:

  • Brief orientation
  • Prerequisite tasks
  • Learn by doing, start straight away
  • Modular, self-contained topics
  • Support error recognition/recovery

We looked at an example of a legacy document, which was organised to match the menu structure of the user interface. Barbara described how she reorganised the document along minimalist principles. She started by identifying the key user roles (booking officer, investigator, administrator) and their key tasks (create booking records, search for new records, etc). The new guide was then organised on sections based on tasks (use the import queue, create inquiry records, create booking records, etc).

Questions from the audience

At this point, a member of the audience said that the minimalist guide would be more of a quick-start guide, but a comprehensive user manual is still required. Barbara’s answer was that a system-organised reference manual is typically not used very much. Users typically want to find their information within the context of the key business task. If it’s important to explain specific elements of the screen, do it as part of the business task.

A number of related questions arose, which Barbara answered authoritatively and clearly. One audience member made the point that you could start with the minimalist guide and allow people to drill down to the more detailed information. Barbara also said that part of the role of technical writer is to point out what the primary focus is: serving the users’ needs based on usability studies. We don’t need to document everything that other people tell us to document.

Psychology of learning

Barbara related the principles of minimalist design to the psychology of learning, which shows that we are complex, emotional beings, not machines that run scripts. We do things for complex reasons, without necessarily understanding the reasons ourselves. We need to act, even to struggle, in order to learn and to retain information. People may even be too busy learning to spend much time on the instructions.

Developing minimalist documentation

Examine the system you’re documenting, decide where it’s not intuitive to use, and help the user with those areas. Discover the user’s mental model, and find out if it matches how the tasks are carried out in the system. If not, help orient them to the system. Find the common error situations, and help users through them.

Thanks Barbara

I’ve never consciously used minimalist design, although I’ve attended a few talks on it through the years. I feel that some of the principles have rubbed off on me. This talk helped crystallise and solidify the concepts and practise of minimalism for me.

About Sarah Maddox

Technical writer, author and blogger in Sydney

Posted on 21 May 2014, in STC, technical writing and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. Thank you for your extensive notes from the STC conference! It is definitely helpful to review some of these techniques so I can start implementing them in my company’s documentation ASAP, and I’m not patient enough to wait for the recordings. Thanks again!

  2. (a) In tech doc, minimalism is based on 4 principles:
    http://www.infomanagementcenter.com/Resources/eNews2012-12JHackos.pdf
    see also http://users.edte.utwente.nl/meij/minimalism.htm
    (both Dr. JoAnn Hackos and Dr; Hans van der Meij co-authored “Beyond the Nurnberg Funnel”)

    (b) Not sure ” Modular, self-contained topics ” belongs to minimalism… this came up with DITA

    (c) Saying ” …books, articles and methodologies that have influenced minimalism. These include DITA, content strategy, Information Mapping, Every Page is Page One by Mark Baker, and more.” is just a huge chronological mistake. Neither DITA nor Content Strategy influenced minimalism. J. Carroll defined the minimalism principles years BEFORE the IBM teams started thinking about DITA…

    For additional resources about minimalism, see: http://minimalist-doc.blogspot.fr/2014/05/minimalism-authoring-some-resources.html

    • Regarding point (c) in Marie-Louise Flacke’s comment above, which states:
      Saying ” …books, articles and methodologies that have influenced minimalism. These include DITA, content strategy, Information Mapping, Every Page is Page One by Mark Baker, and more.” is just a huge chronological mistake. Neither DITA nor Content Strategy influenced minimalism. J. Carroll defined the minimalism principles years BEFORE the IBM teams started thinking about DITA…

      This is, I think, due to an error on my part. From recall, the slide in the presentation was labelled “Influences” and worked both ways. I’ll amend the text.

      Cheers
      Sarah

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: