Are Users Always in a Learning Mode as Minimalism Tells Us

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Jonatan Lundin, Excosoft AB

Minimalism is a design approach within the technical communication field that has been around for more than 30 years. Minimalism has provided important knowledge to the technical communication community. I am among many truly grateful to all the effort that people supporting minimalism in the community have put in during the last 30 years. Minimalism has constantly been discussed and disseminated by technical communicators. To move the technical communication field forward, the minimalist design approach needs to be questioned, disseminated, and looked at from different angles. In this article, I argue that the characterization of the user, which the minimalist design approach is based on, must be extended to take the information-seeking behavior of users into account. This extension is important, since users of today have so many more options for finding information than what was available when minimalism was invented.

The extension means that technical communicators must understand not only what minimalism says about user product behavior, but also the user information-seeking behavior to know how to design technical documentation. In short, we must know how to design an answer, topic, story, or whatever terminology we use for it—we need to know how to design for findability. But before I discuss the proposed extension to minimalism and how to design for findability, l will give you my interpretation of how minimalism characterizes a user.

What Does Minimalism Say About User Product Behavior?

Discovery learning is a key element in the theoretical foundation of the minimalist design philosophy. Minimalism assumes that learners should be active and working on real or realistic tasks as they learn since real and realistic tasks are highly motivating. In other words, users’ learn best about a product’s use by doing real tasks rather than reading about non-real tasks.

Minimalism says that users are active and try the product out before turning their attention to documentation. They approach a new system with an existing mental model of the task and the way it is done. Problems occur when the user’s mental model is in conflict with the mental model the system designer had when the product was designed.

John Carroll, in his book Minimalism Beyond the Nurnberg Funnel, talked about the paradox of sense-making: users are too busy learning by trying things out, thinking things through, trying to relate what they already know to what is going on, and recovering from errors to step out from the real world and learn from instructions which are often in conflict with the mental model of the user. Carroll also talked about the production and assimilation paradoxes, but it is out of scope to talk about them here.

Carroll and his co-authors claim that effective discovery learning must be carefully supported, which is what minimalist instruction is all about. A minimalist instruction, for example, a guided exploration card, must support users in acquiring enough knowledge to form appropriate goals, pursue relevant activities, and draw correct conclusions.

“Invitations for exploration” is a minimalist technique to ensure that users have the prerequisite knowledge to benefit from exploration, will want to explore, and will have a fair chance of success. An “Invitation to explore” section may be placed after a real task instruction. As a consequence, minimalist instruction is heavily learner oriented.

So how does minimalism characterize a user? Minimalism assumes that users are always in a learning mode when reaching for documentation to make sense. Minimalism says that users always explore the product to make sense. They always want task-oriented support, including error recognition and recovery information as well as invitations for exploration, in their discovery learning. But, do users always explore the product when in trouble and do they always seek task-oriented information that supports their exploration journey?

Principle four in minimalism says that you, as a technical communicator, should “Support reading to do, study, and locate” (which JoAnn Hackos has interpreted as “Ensuring that users can find the information they need”). This is an important principle. My own research indicates that users ask many different types of questions in countless numbers of search situations. And yes, users sometimes read the manual before product use. Thus, to be able to ensure that users can find the information they need, we need to extend the minimalist view to accommodate the information-seeking behavior of users.

What is the User Information-seeking Behavior, Really?

My research looks at users of technical products as information-seekers, where I use models and theories from various research fields, such as the information sciences, to understand information behavior. I use one theory among many called activity theory, to understand human information-seeking behavior. What does this theory tell us?

According to activity theory, human beings decide to engage in an activity to solve a human need. When deciding to start an activity, humans formulate a conscious goal, an image of a future desired result.

A need and motive to engage in an information-seeking activity, before or during the use of a technical device or tool, can most certainly be traced back to a feeling of uncertainty. Uncertainty may occur during the work task in which the device or tool is used. There are probably various types of needs and motives that trigger and shape how the goal in an information-seeking activity is formed and accepted.

In other words, users are as active and goal oriented as minimalism tells us. They construct a mental model to find explanations to reduce uncertainty, which helps them to make sense. They try to follow, when possible, the path of least effort. Users probably rely heavily on the mental model they construct out of interactions in the world.

Most important is that users are active not only when trying to use the product to reach real outcomes. They are also active when searching. When they decide to start an information-seeking activity, humans form a conscious information-seeking goal, which is an image of a future-desired state.

Users ask one or several questions when in doubt about how to use the product to reach a real outcome. They decide to actively engage in finding the answers to the questions as a support to make decisions. They know what they want. They look for it. They judge and reflect.

How Do We Design End-user Assistance to Accommodate the Information-seeking Behavior?

First of all, there are several types of questions users ask, for example: “What part number does this product have?” or “What does the noise the product is making mean?” or “What data am I supposed to enter in this field?”

Certain users do not want instructions to tell them to explore and discover. Many users do not want to learn—they want to get the work done fast. Certain users in certain situations do not want to learn, memorize, or remember.

Activity theory says that needs and motives are essential components to energize a human to engage in an activity. Some users have a need to learn everything to be able to show off in front of their colleagues, to prove they are capable of doing tasks without error. They want to fit in a social context. Some users have a need to make a living by putting in as little effort as possible and are not motivated to learn. They are not bothered if they use the product incorrectly.

Following the extended minimalist design agenda, technical documentation cannot be designed as large topics alone—implied by design approaches such as guided exploration cards or EPPO (Every Page is Page One) topics. Topics cannot be designed to contain only task-oriented instructions to guide and support discovery and learning.

Technical communicators should be answering user questions, which is a slightly different approach from developing guided exploration cards. Technical communicators are actually predicting user questions as they often work in pre-release mode. Their task is also to write isolated answers to each question. You will discover that there are high-level questions and low-level questions. Answers to low-level questions such as “What is the product weight” may be bundled into a merged answer. Answers to high-level, task-oriented questions may be crafted as guided exploration cards according to minimalism.

Furthermore, answers should not be organized into a static arbitrary structure, delivered as a traditional book manual. Research has shown that users avoid such manuals because they find them difficult to search. An important task for technical communicators is to make answers easy to find. Here, a faceted navigation is one approach to deliver next generation technical documentation. My work on SeSAM (Search Situation-based Architecture and Methodology) is all about providing technical communicators with a design methodology to predict user questions and design search user interfaces that makes answers easy to find.

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