The Minimalist approach to technical documentation began around 1982 with the work of John Carroll and his colleagues at IBM. Dissatisfied with existing kinds of user support (e.g., documentation) they first engaged in lots of user observations to discover ways of creating support that would more effectively satisfy the propensities of the user.
The first concrete outcome of the work were the Guided Exploration Cards. These GE-Cards meant a radical break with the traditional support from paper manuals. For example, the cards were completely modular. They could be used in almost any order, by and large. As such they closely resembled job aids. Another special characteristic was that instructions were much more open ended than usual. The user’s actions were not prescribed in their minutest details.
Although successful, the GE-Cards were quickly replaced by a manual which came to be known as the First_Minimal_Manual. This document became the widely known epitome of the approach. The backgrounds of its development are described in Carroll’s book titled “The Nurnberg Funnel. Designing minimalist instruction for practical computer skill”.
Minimalism is a design philosophy. Minimalism is a use-centered approach because its priority lies in supporting usage of an application. It is also a user-centered approach because it adapts to the audience as much as possible. The principles and heuristics of minimalism are not rules to be followed blindly or rigorously; they “merely” afford better designs. In addition, they work well only in combination with a thorough treatment of basic design issues such as context, audience and task analyses. The four main design principles of minimalism are:
- Choose an action-oriented approach. Users typically want to do things. This principle reflects the use-centeredness of minimalism
- Anchor the tool in the task domain. A tool is a means to an end. This principle asks designers to select training tasks that are meaningful for the user.
- Support error recognition and recovery. To err is human. There are several ways to increase user competence and comfort levels in handling mistakes.
- Support reading to do, study and locate. Designs must fit as much as possible the diverging needs and propensities of the intended audience. This principle reflects the user-centeredness of minimalism.
Developments of minimalism since the appearance of the Minimal Manual and “The Nurnberg Funnel” have included empirical testing, refinement of method, and the development of another exemplary manual this time for complex software (i.e., Smalltalk –Second_Minimal_Manual –). The approach also expanded into other forms of user support such as online help and gurus. Today, minimalism is among the most widely acclaimed and used bodies of instructional theory as applied to software user assistance.
Minimalism helps reduce training time while increasing learning. Research generally reports a reduction of training time of around 30% and a learning gain of at least 25% compared to other designs. In addition, minimalism reduces production cost because the documentation is always considerably shorter than the original. Initially, minimalism is likely to increase development cost because it takes more time and effort to be brief and on-the-mark. Some studies show that in the long run adopting a minimalist approach can turn out to be a highly profitable affair.
Companies such as IBM, Hewlett Packard, Apple Macintosh, Claris Corporation, Lucent Technologies and Microsoft are applying minimalism for developing products like manuals and online help. The most recent and comprehensive overview on minimalism is presented in the book “Minimalism beyond the Nurnberg Funnel”.
References – a selective bibliography on minimalism
- Carroll, J.M. (1990). The Nurnberg Funnel. Designing minimalist instruction for practical computer skill. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
- Carroll, J.M. (Ed.). (1998). Minimalism beyond the Nurnberg Funnel. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
- Draper, S.W., & Oatley, K. (1990). Action centered manuals or minimalist instruction? Alternative theories for Carroll's minimal manuals. In P. Holt & N. Williams (Eds.), Computers and writing: state of the art (pp. 222-243). Oxford: Intellect books.
- Gong, R., & Elkerton, J. (1990). Designing minimal documentation using a GOMS model: A usability evaluation of an engineering approach. In J. Carrasco Chew & J. Whiteside (Eds.), Proceedings of the CHI '90 Conference (pp. 99-106). New York: ACM.
- Knabe, K. (2000). Designing online help for the Mac OS. In P.Westendorp, C. Jansen & R. Punselie (Eds.), Interface desing & document design (pp. 39-49). Amsterdam: Rodopi.
- Lazonder, A.W. (1994) Minimalist computer documentation. A study on constructive and corrective skills development. PhD. thesis. Twente University, Enschede, the Netherlands.
- Van der Meij, H. (1992). A critical assessment of the minimalist approach to documentation. Conference Proceedings of the 10th Annual International Conference on Systems Documentation, SIGDOC92, Ottawa, Canada (pp. 7-17). New York, NY: ACM.
- Van der Meij, H. (2003). Minimalism revisited. Document Design, 4(3), 212-233.
- Van der Meij, H. & Carroll, J.M. (1995). Principles and heuristics for designing minimalist instruction. Technical Communication, 42(2), 243-261.
Just something funny at the end
Perhaps the ultimately minimalist user’s guide was that printed
on the coin-op version of Atari's PONG, which consisted of two
1. Insert coin.
2. Avoid missing ball for high score.
The second sentence is backwards-constructed, but I admire the whole idea of using only eight words to describe how to play the first
electronic video game that most people had ever seen, and which was completely outside their experience. (Source: Robert Plamondon on http://www.raycomm.com)
Q: Why cannot you be short in describing minimalism?
A: Why are there 5 syllables in the word ‘monosyllabic’?