Minimalism: A cereal killing
This happens way too often in the big city. The scene: corporate cubicles, multiple victims. It could have been avoided if only the suspect’s intentions had been recognized sooner. There were plenty of witnesses, but nobody did anything until it was too late. The Crime Scene Investigators (CSI) described the suspect as a mild-mannered Technical Writer. The weapon: the Delete key. The motive: minimalism.
Minimalism is stripping down documentation to its most fundamental content. You don’t want documentation cluttered with words that impair the reader’s ability to take away what you are trying to communicate. But when do you know if you’ve gone too far with the Delete key? Believe me, you’ll hear about it.
Let’s take a look at something we’re all familiar with: the common box of breakfast cereal. There are many brands of cereal on the shelves of your grocery store. They’re all competing to be the one brand that’s chosen. For this purpose, much of what appears on the cereal box is trying to wow its audience: “Free toy” or “Your daily dose of vitamins” included in this box. But what’s really important to the consumer is the content inside the box that eases their hunger pangs: the cereal.
Each box has information printed on it that is also important to the consumer. The government requires that certain information be included: nutritional information, ingredients, weight, and so on. This important information helps the consumer know what’s inside the box, and as previously stated, is required. You can’t minimalize this away, although it seems that some vendors are trying to reduce the print size to that of an atom (I swear that each year they are getting closer to making this a reality). This is not minimalism. Shrinking the font may meet its goal of providing room for more information on the box, but it may cause the consumer to grab another box whose nutritional information is easier to spot and read.
So, inside a twelve-ounce box, you should find your twelve ounces of nutritional and hunger-appeasing delight. (Some shifting of contents may have occurred during shipping.) What we need to do with our documentation content is to make sure that there’s enough information on the box to inform (and yes, attract) the consumer. We also need to make sure that we provide the consumer with the cereal.
Some vendors have tried to increase profits by continuing to use a twelve-ounce box while reducing the cereal content to only eight ounces. Although this is legal as long as the proper weight is noted on the box, the consumer will eventually catch on and go to another brand that still provides the full twelve ounces. It’s also okay to reduce the contents to eight ounces and reduce the container to an eight-ounce box (reducing the container to fit the contents is called “being green”). If you do this, the consumer doesn’t feel cheated and may find that the eight-ounce size is easier to handle. However, without using atom-sized printing, a certain amount of information may need to be eliminated or reformatted to fit the new, smaller box.
We already discussed that the regulatory information must remain, but some of the “wow” information might have to go. There is a fine line in determining how much you can cut without hurting sales. This is true with documentation, as well. You have to provide information that will make your consumers happy they went with your product but also sell them on staying with your product or sell them other products you offer.
Yes, cereal is a convenient food; you can eat the cereal right out of the box (it makes a great snack). It’s a great product. However, most people enjoy their experience more if they use a bowl and spoon. If you sell bowls and spoons, you might also want your cereal documentation to include just enough information to inform your consumers that you offer bowls and spoons and where to find that information. Keep it minimal. You don’t want to fill your cereal documentation with information about bowls and spoons. Maybe your consumers already have their own bowls, and this extra information only makes it more difficult for them to learn about your cereal.
What about milk? Will your cereal consumers know that your product tastes best when served with milk? If this is important information about your product, you don’t want to completely dismiss it. Depending on your documentation’s target audience, some of your consumers may be new to your product and may need to be informed that their cereal experience can be enhanced with milk. You don’t want your consumers trying desperately to swallow your dry cereal, because they may become disgusted with the product and switch to doughnuts. (Okay, our cereal really doesn’t taste that good, and they’ll probably be switching to doughnuts anyway, unless we really entice them.)
Some of your consumers may have discriminating taste and want more than your cereal offers. They may think your product would be the perfect solution, if only…. Maybe you offer an add-on product: bananas, or a sprinkling of cinnamon. Again, you don’t want to delve into all the information there is about these add-ons in your cereal documentation, but you do want to make it easy for your consumer to learn that add-ons exist and how to find information about them. (Doing so might keep your consumers from stepping over to the dark side and eating that doughnut. You’re doing something to benefit their health.)
Minimalism isn’t about cutting out all the information your consumer needs to know about cereal, bowls, spoons, milk, and your add-ons. Minimalism is about keeping the content organized and to the point. You don’t want to include all the spoon information in the cereal document, but you do want enough in the document so that its existence is known. What’s been happening is the extreme use of the Delete key. You’ve cut the box down to an eight-ounce size—that’s not a crime. But you can start cutting the important stuff, too, and once the eight ounces of cereal is cut? A cereal killing has occurred.
What you have left is the eight-ounce size container with no ingredients. Your consumer starves but not before telling plenty of people that the box contains no substance. We must prevent these unfortunate cereal killings from occurring, and we need to recognize the signs before the killings occur. When do we know when we’ve gone too far? Are we starving the consumer? How do we know if the victim is dead?
There’s the story of a hunter who calls 9-1-1. “I’ve accidently shot and killed my friend,” he tells the operator.
“First thing we need to do is to make sure that the victim is really dead,” the concerned operator says.
A gunshot is heard. “Okay, that step is completed. What’s next?”
Before the fatal shot is fired, we need to talk with our consumers. How are they searching the documentation for information? What tasks are they using the documentation for? We need to realize that our consumers have different needs. We have the consumer who is only looking at our product as a quick snack and eats the cereal directly out of the box with his hands, and, on the other end, we have the consumer who uses the bowl and spoon, with a generous portion of milk, a sliced banana, and just a touch of cinnamon.
You might want to write your documentation by creating different documents targeting each of the consumer types (beginners, experts, and so on). However, if that’s not possible, you need to put enough information in your documentation so that if your consumers need to know about the bowl, bananas, and so on, they can easily find this information. After all, there are countless brands of cereal. What about your cereal sets it apart? Can your documentation provide that distinctive advantage? Maybe the midnight snackers will become distinguished eaters and fatten your bottom line (not to mention their own bottom line), but only if they can learn about it in your documentation.
What have our CSIs uncovered? Did your consumers have to be the victims? Sometimes your first attempt at minimalist documentation leads to a few casualities, but it doesn’t have to be fatal. You need to provide the tools they can use to pull through. If your first attempt created negative feedback from your consumers, listen to them. Find out exactly what information they were seeking and where they were looking for this information. Are they using it for instructional purposes, or are they using it to confirm how to perform a particular task? Are they using it to see how they can improve their processes or to troubleshoot why something isn’t working?
Maybe you’ve provided the information but didn’t make it easy for your consumers to find. Maybe you eliminated the very piece of information they needed to satisfy their hunger. It’s easier and less time consuming to leave the content in instead of having to add it back in later. Plan ahead. Make sure before you cut any information that it’s not important. Consider for a moment that you are reading instructions to defuse a bomb. Don’t you want to know that the Technical Writer left all the steps in the instructions? With this in mind, your second attempt at minimalism should go better.
Be sure you never cut out the government requirements. This will get you in big trouble (or possibly a life sentence). Cereal killers are notorious for preventing their consumers from even knowing about the bowl and spoon options. (What’s the need once you’ve eliminated the cereal?) This quick attempt at minimalism might get you the smaller document you were looking for, but the consumer is left wanting more. Nothing will get your consumers talking about your documentation faster than poor (or non-existent from their perspective) documentation. (The unsatisfied clients are the first ones to go for that doughnut.)
Consider how much better it would be if your clients told their coworkers that, “In addition to my regular cereal, I saw where I could slice a banana onto my cereal, and there was a suggestion to sprinkle some cinnamon on top. Yum! And my bowl and spoon were already in place on my breakfast counter, next to the refrigerator where the milk is kept.”
The CSI team will tell you that it’s fine to eliminate words that don’t add substance to the document, but don’t cut so much material that the consumer starves to death for lack of content. Let’s put an end to the cereal killings!
Symitar, a Jack Henry Company
Ron Fauset is a Senior Technical Writer at Symitar, a Jack Henry Company providing software to the credit union industry. In his 11 years in the technical documentation trenches, Ron has seen it all, learned that all is not always as it seems, and is quick to offer his observations in a light-hearted fashion to anyone who will listen. In addition, he is a Certified Business Continuity Professional (CBCP) and an active member of the San Diego Chapter of the Association of Contingency Planners (ACP) and the San Diego Fire-Rescue Community Emergency Response Team (CERT). Ron is also a member of InfraGard and the California Emergency Services Association and has conducted well-received mock disaster drills at financial institution seminars.