JoAnn Hackos, PhD
CIDM Director

Why Minimalism? Why is interest in minimalism so high today? The Minimalism: Creating Manuals People Can Use workshop is by far our most popular offering. In fact, three of us now teach the workshop, myself, Bill Hackos, and Bill Gearhart, just to keep up with the demand. We offer it through public “brown bag” workshops sponsored by host companies and inhouse to publications groups working to change their approaches to providing user information. Not only do these teams devote time and resources to learning about the minimalist agenda, they actually work hard to implement it in their documentation. We have a regular correspondence with previous participants to clarify their approaches and let us know how they’re doing. A phenomenon indeed!

In discussions with workshop participants and CIDM members about minimalism, I find the following reasons for their interest in the approach:

  • Translating costs are escalating. We need to reduce the volume of words being translated.
  • The documentation set is enormous. We can no longer keep it up to date.
  • We have fewer writers than we had in the past. We need to reduce the text we produce so that we can maintain its quality.
  • Customers complain about too many manuals that are not easy to use.
  • Sales and support tell us that the customers are not using the manuals we are developing. We need to do something different.

At the same time, some workshop participants insist that

  • Their customers are special. They like lots of information, and they want more.
  • Their products are especially complex and difficult to use, requiring lots of explanation and instruction for the customers to be successful.
  • Internal users and subject matter experts insist that they need to know everything about the product. Developers want the manuals to document their product design and code.
  • They don’t know enough about the customers to know what they don’t need. They’re afraid to cut anything from the existing documentation set.
  • Minimalism doesn’t apply to them because they document “fill in the blank here.”
  • They’re afraid that if they reduce the text they won’t be needed any more.

The minimalist agenda actually is intended to reconcile these opposing points of view. On one side are the economic realities of the corporate workplace. On the other side are the wishes and desires of writers, trainers, programmers, marketers, and support staff to satisfy their own needs. The most useful minimalist response is probably somewhere in between.

The Minimalist Realities

I frequently ask the people in my workshops just how much time they spend reading extended text during their working days. Usually, the answer is zero, no time at all. They do, indeed, all read email, some read technical blogs and source content about their products, a few read an occasional article on a technical subject or about information development. Some actually read documentation for products they use, such as their desktop publishing tools or content management systems. Many are frustrated at the lack of usability, the difficulty of finding the information they need, and the general poor quality of the content. They resent the time it takes to find answers to their software-related questions.

The reality is that our customers have the exact same experiences and opinions. They don’t have time for workplace reading unless it is essential. They are frustrated by the lack of accessibility of critical information they need to do their jobs. They want to read only what is essential to perform tasks and troubleshoot the products they use in their work. When they really want to read an extended text (more than one page, by my definition), they take it home. Even then, they may put the text aside when family and friends take precedence.

Time to read is sadly lacking in the contemporary workplace. Minimalism is more critical than ever.

The Minimalist Agenda

While reducing the volume and cutting the word count is certainly a desired outcome, it is not the center of the minimalist agenda. Minimalist advocates understand that people do not want to read and actually do not read anything that does not appear to lead to fulfilling their immediate goals. In fact, the shorter and more lean the text, the more likely it will be read.

The minimalist agenda focuses on usefulness and usability. The agenda encompasses four essential principles:

  • In the workplace, people are focused on accomplishing tasks and meeting goals. They want the information they need to get a job done in the most timely manner possible. They are focused on doing something for the sake of their jobs rather than knowing something for its own sake.
  • People prefer that information be in the context of their goals, their tasks, and their working environment. If they can find information that directly tells them how to reach their goals, they are much happier than if they have to extrapolate from disparate facts. They would like to have information that presents them with realistic scenarios and shows how the goals of the scenarios are best accomplished. They prefer hints, tips, and tricks that show them the best way to get a task done.
  • Because they often seek out information when they have a problem to solve or when something has gone unexpectedly wrong, they like information that is oriented toward problem solving. Just reviewing the typical product listserv shows that people seek help to resolve unexpected results or an inability to achieve the outcomes that they need. In fact, they seek out individuals with possible solutions to their problems because the information they need is not in or cannot be found in the official documentation.
  • They are frustrated when they cannot easily and quickly find the information to help them solve problems and better set a path toward a goal. They are most likely to ask a colleague or an outside contact through an email, a listserv, or a phone call. They often report that they cannot find information in manuals or on company websites. Or, the information that they do find is incomplete or does not offer sufficient insight into what is happening in their use of the product.

In brief, the four minimalist principles are

  • Emphasize doing rather than knowing.
  • Provide a context for the information that relates to the users’ working environment.
  • Focus on troubleshooting and problem solving.
  • Above all, ensure that information is easily and quickly accessible.

Now, doing any or all of these things is not easy. It requires that we know a great deal about who our readers are and what they are trying to do. So—minimalism always begins with user and task analysis. Given that starting point, I’m often puzzled about the lower interest in our user and task analysis workshop. I suspect that people want an easy fix to the problem of too much unusable documentation rather than the harder and more time-consuming work of learning about the customers. However, without that understanding, minimalism degenerates into making sentences shorter or eliminating those “about this manual” sections that no one reads.

Getting into Minimalism

The minimalism workshop is a good starting point, as is reading Minimalism Beyond the Nurnberg Funnel, the 1998 collection of articles by minimalism experts published by MIT Press. In the workshop, you work through the minimalist checklist with your own manuals together with colleagues in small working sessions. As a result, you go home with a lot of specific changes to implement immediately. Frequently, participants report back in a few weeks or months with “before” and “after” examples of their work. Inhouse versions of the workshop help whole teams come up with their minimalism plans.

The other important investment is better understanding the customers by visiting their workplaces, discussing how they use information daily, and better understanding the problems they are trying to solve. Although there really is no substitute for direct observation, any opportunities for meeting and talking with customers should not be overlooked. The User and Task Analysis for Information Design workshop helps you develop a plan for learning about customers. The book I wrote with Ginny Redish,User and Task Analysis for Interface Design provides step-by-step instruction on planning, conducting, and analyzing the results of user observations.