Ten Misconceptions about Minimalism

JoAnn T. Hackos, CIDM Director

In 1996, John Carroll and Hans van der Meij, the originators of the Minimalism agenda, contributed an article to the IEEE Transactions on Professional Communication (Vol 39, No 2, June 1996) called “Ten Misconceptions about Minimalism.” The intent of the article was to correct what they believed where understandable but mistaken ideas that had emerged in the 10+ years in which minimalism had been developing.

I thought it might be interesting to update some of the 1996 article and discuss the misconceptions that are still around.  Let’s first look at the list Carroll and van der Meij put together in 1996:

1.    Minimalism means brevity.
2.    Minimalism means incomplete instructional analyses.
3.    Minimalism means trial-and error learning.
4.    Minimalism does not support people who learn by reading.
5.    Minimalism emphasizes errors.
6.    Minimalism is just another word for job aids.
7.    Minimalism works only for simple domains.
8.    Minimalism merely reflects the preconceptions of users.
9.    Minimalism offers a complete documentation solution.
10.    Minimalism has no theoretical foundation.

I want to focus here on two, numbers 1 and 7.

Perhaps the most frequent misconception that I hear, even from people who sign up for my Minimalism training, is that minimalism means brevity. In attending the training, some people expect to learn how to eliminate extra words from sentences. While I certainly believe that sentences should be easy to read, which often means that they should be short, reduced sentence length is not the goal of minimalism.

I often point out that sentences can easily be made shorter by eliminating every other letter or just printing the bottom half of the letters. Slashing text is generally a really poor technique, especially if nothing else is done to improve the content.

What Carroll and van der Meij point out in their response to this misconception is that minimalism should never be reduced to a simplified caricature. It is the entire approach reflected in the minimalist agenda that makes it effective.

For me, the second most frequent misconception is that minimalism only applies to simple applications. Many of Carroll’s original examples, like the famous Typing Something, are based on what many regard as simple software applications for clerical workers. Of course, these applications were not considered simple by their first users. But they, nonetheless, embody fairly simple products used by novices.

Fortunately, we have nearly 40 years of examples in which minimalism have been successfully implemented for very complex products used by skilled professionals. I concluded years ago that minimalism applies everywhere.

Let us consider here two of the ten misconceptions to see if we have any new ideas to offer based on an additional 20 years of experience implementing a minimalist approach to content.

Minimalism means brevity

Like Carroll, I have encountered a few sarcastic comments over the years about writing style and minimalism. One reviewer of Carroll’s The Nurnberg Funnel complained that Carroll’s sentences were too long as he was explaining his research results. Carroll points out that following the minimalist design principles should result in brevity if they are applied correctly. He tells us that

Brevity is a consequence of minimalism, not a goal.

Some organizations come to minimalism training believing that using minimalist design will save money. Writers will produce shorter, less costly documents. Developers and engineers will spend less time explaining and reviewing. Perhaps, the engineering management can hire untrained, less expensive people to write minimalist instructions. Perhaps, translations will cost less if everyone writes fewer words.

Unfortunately, if you have really embraced minimalism, you know that minimalism requires more, not less, skill from its developers. Writers who can develop strong minimalist content will be more expensive, not less.

Consider less experienced or less skilled writers who do nothing more than explain how to fill out on-screen forms and click buttons. They may produce content with fewer words, but they also produce content that has almost no value. Writing about features and functions and producing pages/topics of content does not produce minimalist results, but “neither will the approach of slashing or simplifying.”

Well-trained, talented minimalist writers work hard to define the content that users really need. They involve users in the development process, using well-honed agile techniques to prototype, test, and refine.

The savings are not in less development time. The savings are in producing the best content, content that reduces the time it takes for users to learn the product and use it productively. Customer success is the ultimate judge of minimalism.

So don’t come to minimalism training expecting to learn to write shorter sentences. Do expect to learn that knowing what users genuinely need and what they don’t need will most frequently result in writing less.

Minimalism works only for simple domains

Some writers, attending a minimalism workshop, argue that the focus on an action-oriented approach to content, the first principle of minimalism, does not apply to them. They write primarily reference information, most often for software, operating systems, semiconductors, or similar complex domains. They explain that they do not write tasks since they do not know in advance what customers might be using the software, the operating system, or the chip to do. All they can do is explain the features and functions (and the commands) that are represented by the product.

Carroll’s original research at IBM did focus on simple domains, much of it word processing, because that information was easily available and used by a large number of customers. Consequently, some people reviewing Carroll’s work conclude that minimalism only works for simple subject matter, not the complex products and content that they produce.

In the second minimalism book that John Carroll edited, Minimalism Beyond the Nurnberg Funnel, I wrote about using minimalism to design the content for software that enabled statisticians to analyze their data using graphical techniques–really complicated material. We focused on helping them understand how to use the software to get meaningful information from their data. Minimalism was the perfect solution because we knew a great deal about what the users already understood. We could begin with what they knew and build from there.

In response to the criticism about simple domains, Carroll’s IBM research team developed minimalist instruction for the Smalltalk programming language and its object-oriented design principles. The audience was professional programmers. Minimalist instruction was just as successful with a highly technical product and experienced professionals than it was with a simple domain and word-processing operators.

In fact, we have multiple examples in the past two years of information developers taking a minimalist approach with complex content. I hear frequently from information-development managers (and CIDM members) who are engaged in developing new kinds of information in response to customer requests. Many of these managers direct writers who have always assumed that they cannot take an action-oriented approach to their content. Only concepts and reference material are needed.

What customers are telling them, however, is that they really want an action-oriented, minimalist approach. They want tasks, discussions, and examples that demonstrate how to invoke best practices to solve a problem and to get the results that they desperately need. What they don’t need, they loudly explain, are tasks that explain how to navigate the interface or fill out forms. They want information that helps them solve problems, think about what should actually go into the fields on the forms, and get the results they require.

Solutions-based content, as it turns out, is minimalist action-oriented content designed for very complex domains. Solutions-based content is not easy to develop because it requires much understanding of user problems to be solved, rather knowing how the features and functions of the product were designed.

You might say that solutions-based content is minimalism on steroids. It’s difficult to develop because it requires great expertise. It’s explanatory and action-oriented but it isn’t likely about simple procedures. It requires a skilled user, and it certainly cannot account for every design possibility.

Writers often complain that users can do “anything” with their products. How can they possibly document all the solutions that users might want? Fortunately, users understand that they cannot get complete instructions for solving ever problem they face. What they do hope for are good examples, with rich explanations of the thought processes and actions that got someone from the problem statement to the solution. If it’s about software, they want sample code. If it’s about semiconductors, they want typical design solutions. They want enough information to use the content as a starting point to get to their own solutions.

Carroll wrote in 1996 that he hoped that more research would point to better ways to create reference documentation. I think we already know that minimalism solutions for complex domains include action-focused reference information as well as solutions and case studies that foster user actions.

So don’t announce that you cannot employ minimalism because you only write reference information. Think about transforming that reference information into content that supports user actions.

A minimalist future

Minimalism continues to point toward new ways of working and thinking about content. It pushes us to explore new solutions.

As we continue to learn as much as possible about our users and their information needs, we must engage in creating new documentation solutions rather than forever updating the old solutions or remaining stuck in the past. We have so many more resources available today than we did in 1996. We can create videos, slide presentations, interactive online tutorials, as well as getting started guides and solutions-oriented information.

We have so many tools available to us to approach content in a more valuable way. At the core remains minimalism.