Minimalist principle 1: Choose an action-oriented approach

Instruction should be use-centered. Users should not have to wade through endless pages of ‘just information’. In minimalism it is a priority in designing training materials to provide users with an immediate opportunity to act. This means giving less conceptual information and a higher focus on getting users to practice basic procedures. In addition, users should frequently be invited to explore other options of the program. Also, the user’s actions should not be obstructed by whatever help is offered; users should not experience the support as an imposition. The design strategies that belong to the principle to choose an action-oriented approach are: 

  • Heuristic 1.1: Provide an immediate opportunity to act
  • Heuristic 1.2: Encourage and support exploration and innovation.
  • Heuristic 1.3: Respect the integrity of the user's activity.

Heuristic 1.1: Provide an immediate opportunity to act

People want to do something with a product and not to read about it. User documentation must find ways to accommodate to this eagerness to act which is both the heart of people’s motivation to learn a skill and the source of a fundamental production paradox. To learn to do, it may be psychologically necessary to act. At the same time, we can clearly see from their misconceptions and errors that users need to learn in order to act. One of the big challenges in creating user documentation is finding an appropriate balance between supporting the user’s immediate actions and providing them with the necessary conceptual information. 

Providing immediate opportunities for action is so central to minimalism that any example of minimalist instruction would illustrate it. An example is the Minimalist Tutorial and Tools for Smalltalk (MiTTS). The MiTTS manual is 35 pages long and to be used in concert with a set of programming tools and instrumented programming projects such as a graphical animation of a Blackjack card game. The intention is that both the slender manual and the graphical demo will impress the user as invitations to act. In MiTTS, the programmer is exercising real code in the Blackjack application within 15 minutes of starting, and in 2 hours, the programmer is making changes to its design and implementation. 

Conventional user documentation often does not place a high enough priority on supporting user’s action early on. Many tutorials start with an explanation, an account of how the application works, how the instruction works, or an orientation to the semantics of the domain. While valuable to the learner at some point in time, they are a distraction when it is the first information that the user encounters about a product.

To help designers in dealing effectively with conceptual information minimalism has two outspoken positions on its ‘what’ and ‘when’. An important guideline is to include only the absolute minimum of ‘must know’ information. All else is ‘nice to know’ information that should be left out in favor of getting the user to focus on acquiring the necessary skill. Conceptual information should also be presented when users are most motivated to give it its due attention. By and large this often happens to be an ‘after-the-fact situation. Just as consumers tend to be more interested in price comparisons after having bought a product than before, so are users of software more interested in reading conceptual information after having tried things out than before. Some explanations can therefore better be given after the user has had an opportunity to explore. This is especially true for error-prone situations. When users have made a mistake they are often highly motivated to learn – and read – more about it. 

Heuristic 1.2: Encourage and Support Exploration and Innovation

Users should always feel in control of their own activities. People are more engaged by selfdirected activity; they prefer it and they learn more from it. Minimalist instruction provides users with opportunities to act that are, to the greatest extent possible, under the user’s control. These are not unguided explorations, however, because such activities can be very ineffective and frustrating. Likewise, these are not instructions that ask users to carry out exercise steps couched at a very low level, because such activities are perceived as trivial and unengaging. 

Minimalist instruction tries to strike a balance between activities that are sufficiently openended for users to understand and undertake as meaningful projects and yet are defined clearly enough that users can orient to specific goals and perhaps specific methods in pursuing activities. Some guidelines that fit this idea are: use a language that invites users to explore, consider carefully when users should be offered suggestions for other strategies, and focus more on student evaluation and less on expert evaluation.

Minimal manuals frequently encouraged users to try things out for themselves (e.g., see the MiTTS manual). Their formulation stimulates users to explore. That is, most of these instructions are accompanied by expressions such as ‘Please try it’, ‘Try and see for yourself’ and ‘See what happens’ that invite users to act. In contrast, conventional manuals typically describe such invitations in neutral terms that describe rather than invite such as ‘You can also ...’ and ‘Another possibility is ...’.

The invitations in minimal manuals are much more seductive, leading to 33% more explorations than similarly intended invitations in conventional manuals. This effect is probably only partly the result from the way in which the action prompts are formulated. It is probably also the result of the stronger action-oriented nature of minimal manuals and of a better positioning of the invitations.

In minimal manuals most invitations appear at the end of a chapter or section. There are several reasons why this is so. One argument is that this placement prevents a disruption of the execution of the basic task. Conventional manuals typically overload the user with conceptual information and hints where the user is mainly interested in task completion. Another reason is that the user sometimes can appreciate the value of an invitation to explore only after having practiced with a comparable option. Once the user understands which goals can be achieved with a particular option he or she is more inclined to try out what else is possible. Yet another reason is that positioning an inviation to explore after an instruction puts the user is in a good position to discover how to achieve related goals. It is a fairly safe moment to engage oneself in exploration. A prototypical example would be the invitation to try to underline a word after having gone through the exercise of underlining a word.

The optimal balance point between instructing and supporting exploration can vary considerably from project to project. The important thing to consider is that the user’s explorations should have a fair chance of success and be reasonably safe. The user should be able to return to the starting point easily. It is stimulating to veer off the prescribed path only if users have some confidence that the prescribed path is still there and that it can be rejoined. 

Heuristic 1.3: Respect the Integrity of the User's Activity

Designers should keep in mind that the goals of the user may be different as well as much less sophisticated, much shorterterm than their own. While it is undoubtedly important for the user to become acquainted with some of the goals and methods that the designer knows to be valuable, so it is important for the designer to find ways to bring these to the attention of the user without compromising their integrity. In some cases this means subordinating an instruction to the continuity of the user’s projectoriented activity. 

Passive help techniques exemplify this view. A fine example is Balloon Help which appears only on request (or after a delay of a few seconds). In Apple Macintoshes, users must select the ‘Show Balloons’ command from the Help menu. When they do, objects are documented as the cursor sweeps over them. Thus, Balloon Help mimics the main purpose of a glossary, providing users with the meaning of an object at any point in time. 

To respect the integrity of users’ activities, designers must often step aside a bit. They can create help, but should not impose this on users. However, this does not mean that users cannot be seduced into pursuing other goals and other actions. If the designer succeeds in creating effectively meaningful activities for the user, these will become genuine to the user. At any instant, they will become the activities to which the user is committed.

Misconception: minimalism means trial-and-error learning

Guided discovery learning is a key element in the minimalist design philosophy. Minimalism assumes that learners should be active, that they should work on real or realistic tasks as they learn. Part of the reasoning is that real(istic) tasks are highly motivating and that working on these tasks better supports transfer to other goals and situations. It is easy to confuse guided discovery learning with learning by trial and error, as some authors have done.

The confusion hinges on taking systematic (i.e., rote) curricula and trial-and-error learning as exhaustive possibilities, which they are not. Guided discovery learning is not equivalent to the absence of all curriculum and support; rather it entails fundamentally different kinds of curriculum and support than passive and rote-structure approaches. Minimalism clearly advocates guided exploration as opposed to learning by an unguided immersion in a problem situation.

Effective discovery learning must be carefully supported. Learners must have enough knowledge to form appropriate goals, to pursue relevant activities, and to draw correct conclusions. Implementing this requires a thorough analysis of what users can be expected to do at various stages of learning. Also, users must be enabled to learn from mistakes and simultaneously be protected from distracting errors and confusions. Opportunities to discover must retain the motivating aspects of real tasks but also be tractable for learners.


  • Carroll, J.M., & Van der Meij, H. (1998). Ten misconceptions about minimalism. In J.M. Carroll (Ed.), Minimalism beyond the Nurnberg funnel (pp. 55 - 90). Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press.
  • Van der Meij, H. & Carroll, J.M. (1998). Principles and heuristics for designing minimalist instruction. In J.M. Carroll (Ed.), Minimalism beyond the Nurnberg funnel (pp. 19 -53). Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press.