JoAnn Hackos, PhD, Comtech Services, Inc.

Over the past 10 years, many publications groups have embraced minimalism as the best course of action for their information development. But the questions always comes up—is minimalism the best decision for “our” users? As the argument goes—“Our” users want to know everything about the product. What then can they possibly exclude? Or is the decision about a minimalist approach one based solely on excluding content that users really need?

I would argue that a traditional mind set almost never leads to the right decisions about content. It’s usually a consequence of not knowing enough about the audience, not knowing what they already know, what is simple for them, and what they find difficult to understand. Too often, users find the information we provide far too inconsequential, focused often on the details of navigating through the user interface of hardware or software. They complain that we provide little content that is relevant to their real goals. They want useful scenarios, case studies, examples, and more—all telling them how to use the product effectively in pursuit of genuine business goals.

Minimalist is first and foremost about addressing users’ real goals, helping get on with their work, allowing them to use products productively and effectively as quickly as possible. However, the depth and breadth of the information they really find useful will vary with the level of expertise and sophistication they bring to the product. See my Minimalism blog at for an outline of the Minimalism tenets.

To make the best decisions about content, I recommend using the Stages of Use model. This model, first promulgated by Dreyfus and Dreyfus in Mind over Machine, stems from their seminal study of the manner in which people employ technology. The Dreyfus brothers were professors at MIT in the 1980s, one a specialist in computer science and the other in cognitive psychology. In the work we did for Hewlett-Packard in the early 1990s, the usability professionals corroborated the Dreyfus model with a detailed study of HP customers and their adoption of technology. I wrote about my own analysis in Standards for Online Communication in 1997. Ginny Redish and I updated the model in User and Task Analysis for Interface Design in 1998.

Stages of Use

Dreyfus and Dreyfus argue that the way people adopt technology can be described through five Stages of Use:

Stage 1 – Novice
Stage 2 – Advanced Beginner
Stage 3 – Competent Performer
Stage 4 – Proficient Performer
Stage 5 – Expert Performer

Working with Stages of Use

In analyzing your user community, identify the proportion of your users that fall into each stage. For example, if you support a product or system that is used by professionals as a major part of their work, you will find a higher percentage of users in Stage 3 and above. If you support a consumer product like a cell phone or a VCR, you will find a preponderance of users in Stage 2. If you support a walk-up-and-use system like an ATM machine, most of your users will be in Stage 1.

Stage 1 – Novice

All users new to a product go through the novice stage. The more experienced users just move through Stage 1 more quickly. Inexperienced users who are intimidated by technology may never progress beyond Stage 1, getting stuck in their fear of tackling something that is strange and uncomfortable.

Novices go through a period of fear and challenge. They want to be successful, and quick. They don’t want to spend time reading background and theory; they want to do something productive right away. Novices need an opportunity for immediate success.

Information developed for novices has to be quick and easy to use. They won’t sit still for long dissertations on theory or descriptions of products. They want a few straightforward tasks that get them started right away. They’re discouraged by pages and pages of documentation that seem unrelated to their basic goal of getting something done. “About this Manual,” “Introduction,” and so on—simply keep them from accomplishing real work.

Stage 2 – Advanced Beginner

The majority of users of most technology can be called Advanced Beginners. At Stage 2, they have moved beyond Novice to a basic use of technology. They have learned to perform the tasks they need, with little need for a conceptual understanding of the product or system. They do enough to be satisfied. They learn more tasks only when necessary. They are rarely interested in gaining any understanding of how or why the product works the way it does. They are strictly task-oriented.

The critical ingredient in Stage 2 documentation is the task, best written with a thorough understanding of what is trivial to the user and what is key to a successful performance. Too much trivia, including navigating the interface rather than doing something useful, can discourage the Advanced Beginner. Much documentation describes the buttons, keys, and functions with steps that are often obvious (entering someone’s name and address, for example). Minimalism means simplifying the obvious instructions and stressing those steps that are likely to cause some difficulty or misunderstanding.

If you think about your own use of most technology, you’ll find yourself a Stage 2 user. You know how to use the controls of your television—just enough to get to the channels you want or record a program. Anything more exotic is beyond your interests. You learn just what you need to get by.

Stage 3 – Competent Performer

The transition to Competent Performer is momentous. The Advanced Beginner becomes more interested, willing to learn more, ready for a deeper understanding of the technology. He or she performs more tasks and more challenging ones, pursuing a conceptual understanding. The Advanced Beginner begins to troubleshoot basic problems, figuring out how the product works under the surface.

The key content for the Stage 3 user is provided through careful linking. Starting with tasks, the Stage 3 user gains competence by pursuing conceptual information but only conceptual information that is clearly linked to improved performance.

A Stage 3 user expects a lot from documentation and is easily disappointed. If you provide only descriptions of product functions, this user will turn elsewhere—to user groups, third-party books, any place where information is presented in context. Competent Performers are intent on understanding how the pieces work together, not how each piece is shaped. Use cases, in-context tutorials, explanations of what is really going on feeds the interests of Competent Performers.

Troubleshooting information is especially valued at this stage because solving problems generally leads to greater insight. However, good troubleshooting information is often in short supply in customer documentation. Information developers know that it’s the most difficult content to find and to write. They have to turn to support staff, trainers, application engineers, and the customers themselves for critical content.

Stages 4 and 5 – Proficient and Expert Performers

The difficulty the information developers face in providing content for Proficient and Expert Performers is significant. These Stage 4 and 5 users know all the basics, generally having figured out more than most documentation covers. They have learned themselves and through colleagues all the short cuts and work-arounds that make the products function most effectively.

Since these users are doing new things with the product, their best source of information is other expert colleagues. It’s very difficult to develop information they find useful unless the information developers have access to the most knowledgeable and skilled of internal resources. However, these users often ask questions that even internal experts may have difficulty answering, because they want the products to do things for which they were not specifically designed. Pressing their needs, they find gaps in the product design and ask for enhancements and new functionality.

Applying Minimalism to the Stages of Use

The Minimalism agenda has four key points of focus:

  • Take an action-oriented approach (critical for Stages 1 and 2)
  • Present your information from the users’ point of view (critical for all stages)
  • Emphasize diagnosing and correcting problems (critical for Stages 3, 4, and 5)
  • Ensure that information is easily accessible through indexes, search, and navigation (critical for all stages)

Based on your analysis of your user communities, product by product, decide how much information is needed in each area of focus. Except for novice users you may not need to account for every step in a task if the steps are obvious (clicking OK multiple times, for example). Consider that everyone needs relevant content, especially content that links conceptual understanding directly to tasks to be accomplished. Spend time understanding your users’ point of view, especially because they are experts in their working environment. They can best help you identify user scenarios that resonate in their world.

No one needs documentation cluttered with writer stuff. That includes chapters on how to use the manual (no one reads these) or useless bulleted lists introducing the content in a chapter. In fact, I’d argue that the whole idea of chapters and deep hierarchies of topics are clearly maximalist strategies that have no role in product instructional material. Remember that users are not coming to your content to read. We clearly do not include enough action, sex, and violence in our content to keep them as engrossed as they are in fiction (unless you’re writing documentation like Stephen King).

The more unnecessary content we omit from our documents, the more all the users are likely to read. Minimalism research suggests that 90 percent of users will use (not read) minimalist documentation. Make a promise to yourself to leave the Traditional agenda behind.