The first type of user support created by Carroll and his colleagues was a set of cards. Unlike the standards of that time, these cards did not prescribe the procedures and user actions in their most minute details. Instead, the users were challenged to do some thinking on their own. The name of these cards reflects this notion: users were guided in exploring the software.
The GE-cards are based on four building blocks which are each given their own presentation format. The focus of the information is on supporting usage of the software. For that reason three building blocks discuss some aspect of software usage and only one block offers conceptual or background information. In the minimal manuals that came later, Carroll worked with five building blocks, as he split the ‘enabling hints’ into direct instructions and indirect ones.
The four building blocks of GE-cards are:
Background information such as a goal description or a fact.
Information that invites and supports task execution. GE-cards do not distinguish between direct commands that users should execute to realize basic tasks, and indirect commands that invite users to explore.
Some form of feedback or feedforward.
Information for handling mistakes. May support detecting, understanding and solving problems.
The GE-cards were the immediate predecessor of the minimal manual. Although successful, Carroll abandoned the GE-card design mainly to satisfy the user’s request for a more conventional format for a pre-structured manual. This next product came to be known as the minimal manual. This manual maintained the basic ideas from the GE-cards, but presented these in a more familiar format.
The idea of using a building blocks for designing user support is, of course, not unique for minimalism. It can also be found in Information Mapping™ (Horn, 1976, 1993), in the ISTE approach (Van der Meij, 1997, 2000) and in the 4-Components model (Van der Meij, Blijleven & Jansen, 2002), among others. The key notion is that procedures can be decomposed into a limited and variable set of building blocks. Whenever possible, each unique building block should be given its own presentation format to afford a switft and easy processing of information for users who know their way around.
Note that many, if not all instructional design theories make use of building blocks. Invariably, these building blocks are never seen as a substitute for the whole approach. The selection and presentation of blocks hinges on the outcomes from context, content, audience and task analyses as well as from the design philosophy. In other words, the use of a building blocks approach in procedures is a derivative property of more fundamental issues of design.
- Horn, R.E. (1976). How to write Information Mapping. Lexington, MA: Information Resources Inc.
- Horn, R.E. (1993). Structured writing at twenty-five. Performance and Instruction, february, 11-17.
- Van der Meij, H. (1997). The ISTE-approach to usability testing. IEEE Transactions on Professional Communication, 40(3), 209-223.
- Van der Meij, H. (2000). Examining the relationship between quality writing and quality reading. Technical Communication, 47(2), 195-204.
- Van der Meij, H., Blijleven, P. & Jansen, L. (2002). What makes up a procedure? In M.J. Albers & B. Mazur (Eds.), Content & Complexity. Information design in software development and documentation (pp. 129-186). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.