April 2003

From the Director

CIDMIconNewsletter JoAnn Hackos

Dear Friends,

I’ve devoted several of my columns to the challenges we face given the state of the economy. Layoffs continue at a pace equaled in the 1940s, and we now have fewer jobs in the economy than we did more than 10 years ago. We keep hearing news of publications groups continuing to cut back.

With such challenges, we often fear innovation. We can hardly accomplish the work we have always done. In such circumstances, innovation seems impossible because it takes too much time. Nonetheless, it isn’t possible to continue doing the same work with fewer staff and harder deadlines. We must find new ways of working.

Minimalism, I believe, is the core for making the right decisions about innovation. The minimalist agenda suggests that we

  • write only what is used and needed by our customers
  • focus on eliminating information that is never used or can be provided more economically by other means
  • decrease the cost of producing information today

A few years ago, we were engaged to review and redesign a particular type of document. During a very close reading of the subject in the existing very large manual, we discovered several significant issues:

  • The documents began with “conceptual” information describing how the system or product worked.
  • This “conceptual” information was repeated in somewhat different form in four chapters with little additional information.
  • It was clear from discussions with the users that none of the “conceptual” information helped them do their jobs.
  • Only the procedural information, which focused on troubleshooting errors, was useful.
  • Even the procedural information could be drastically shortened.

Documents with content issues like these could easily be shortened by 50 percent. Beth Barrow’s team at Nortel Networks drastically shortened their documents and received positive feedback from customers as a result.

Minimalism provides a method for making the right decisions about content, decisions that are particularly important as departments move toward content management. There’s little point in managing content that is not being used nor in translating that content into multiple languages.

The difficult part about minimalism is, of course, finding what content is actually needed. That requires liaisons with those who use the information, whether inside or outside the company. Liaisons with training and customer support, at the very least, provide insight about customers because these organizations interact regularly with end-users of products and are themselves information users. Too often, we find that writers have little contact with training or support and miss great opportunities to understand their customers.

We just completed a round of usability testing on a new set of documents. The outcome-restructure the documents and rewrite the text to make it easier to read. Neither conclusion would have been obvious to the writers had it not been for the direct response of customers. Now the writers are energized about “getting it right.”

By the way, my next minimalism workshop is scheduled in Lexington, Kentucky, on May 13 and 14. Please consider getting involved. The minimalist agenda provides you with a way of responding to current challenges at the same time it provides a way of improving customer satisfaction. You couldn’t hope for a better combination. CIDMIconNewsletter