Posts Tagged ‘Minimalism’

Have you ever read a user manual or training manual cover to cover?  Very few users of technology manuals or any instructional artifact read from start to finish or  follow a linear step-by-step reading process through a document.

Human computer interaction (HCI) and technical communication research has consistently shown that users will hunt and gather information as they go – rather than consistently work through supporting materials in a linear fashion.  Still, most user manuals and software training continues to consistently follow a “systems” approach where every feature and function is documented – whether anyone will actually use it or not.

As technical writers, instructional designers, and digital designers we can help users more if we provide them with less.  How? I advocate a minimalist approach of design and instruction that is based on the notion that users need useful, but not comprehensive information to learn.

First articulated by former IBM researcher John Carroll, the principles of minimalism were first developed to help novice users learn how to get to competency faster:

“Our strategy in developing training designs was to accommodate, indeed to try to capitalize on, manifest learning styles, strategies, and goals…we became committed to minimizing the obtrusiveness to the learner of the training material –hence the term minimalist.” (Carroll, 1990, p. 7)

Three key aspects of the minimalist instructional approach are:

  1. Allow learners to start immediately on meaningfully realistic tasks
  2. Reduce the amount of reading time and other passive activity in training
  3. Help to make errors and error recovery less traumatic and more pedagogically productive

Carroll’s research (along with that of Janice Redish and Jo Ann Hackos) has determined that users are “reading-to-learn-to do” and want immediate opportunities to act-not reading about how to manipulate the tools that will get them there.  Designing usable content requires a constant attempt to balance the learner’s desire for knowledge with the learner’s desire to accomplish the task at hand.  The priority in designing minimalist instruction is to invite users to act and to support their action.

How do practitioners make this active learning approach work in their designs?

To design minimally we need to know the maximum about our users: 

  • Are they novices, intermediate or expert users? 
  • Do they have any preconceived notions about the tasks or outcomes of those tasks?
  • What previous experience do they bring to the tool, interface or the instruction?
  • What can we determine about the users’ motivation for using the technology and taking the training or reading the documentation? 
  • What errors are users likely to make in the use of a tool or process? 
  • How can the designer best help them quickly recover from an error and learn from that mistake to become a “better” user?

A minimalist approach requires a significant investment of designer/writer input and time in the development process, a motivation (and the freedom) to move beyond standard audience analysis techniques, and a willingness to advocate for instructional materials that are more useful than they are “complete”.  Practitioners often run into resistance to a technique that calls for giving users incomplete information, documenting real tasks versus documenting system features, and presents tough choices about how and when to integrate comprehensive documentation with other kinds of support.

Next post: Is a minimalist approach to technology instruction always the right approach?


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