Minimalist principle 4: Support reading to do, study and locate

The various ways in which people process a manual have been qualified under colorful names such as the penguin-syndrome, the nose-in-the-book phenomenon and the kick-and-rush strategy. All these names signal that users do not systematically process their manual from beginning to end. Instead, their behavior is more flexible. Sometimes they read to study. Sometimes they read to locate some information. Most of the time, however, they read to do; most of the reading is task and action oriented. The manual should somehow support all of these reading strategies. The design strategies that belong to the principle to support reading to do, study and locate are: 

  • Heuristic 4.1: Be brief; don’t spell out everything
  • Heuristic 4.2: Provide closure for chapters

Heuristic 4.1: Be brief; don't spell out everything 

In general, reducing the text of a manual is a matter of exploiting the user’s actions and the context in which they appear. By being brief, the manual communicates that the user’s task does not require a formidable effort. By not explaining everything, the manual stimulates users to activate relevant prior knowledge and to depend more on their own thinking. Because users are generally not seeking explanations for their own sake, one should be very cautious in presenting conceptual information before users have had a chance to work with a program. Presenting explanations after, rather than before, task completion generally is a preferable option.

Brevity also means that one should not present users with too much information in a single chapter. Even though a chapter of two to four pages can still mean a lot of work for the user, they are closer to what is desirable than chapters of twenty pages and longer (unless there is an abundance of illustrations). A useful criterion in designing brief chapters can also be the guideline that the average user should be able to complete it in about 20 minutes. Around 90% of all users can then probably complete the chapter within 30 minutes, which seems about the right time for users to concentrate on the task and stay motivated. Just as importantly, it convinces the user that chapters not only look short, but that they really are short.

Rather than explaining or showing it all, writers can use pointers and prompts to have users infer things. A main principle for not spelling out everything is to omit information that can easily be inferred. For example, manuals often discuss how certain keys work. Such discussions also often explain the advantages of certain options over others (e.g. using backspace versus selecting a block of text and deleting it). In a minimalist approach users do not receive such explanations. Instead, they merely practice using the backspace key for shorter textual segments and they practice with the method of text selection and deletion for longer segments. These actions are supposed to speak for themselves; users should be able to see how these methods work and infer how they differ. 

Heuristic 4.2: Provide Closure for Chapters

One of the ways to adapt to different uses and different users comes from providing closure. Closure, also known as modularity, refers to a design in which each chapter is a rounded-off whole. When chapters are independent of each other users are free to process only those chapters that interest them. In addition, they can also do so in a sequence that they prefer. It must be noted however that, unless chapters repeat information, full closure is impossible to achieve. Some dependency among chapters will always be the case. 

One of the ways to achieve closure comes from avoiding dependency of products among chapters. Some manuals, for example, are designed around a single case, or file, of which the contents become more and more complex as users work through the chapters. Such cases can be very instructive. Designers should therefore not abandon these in favor of closure, but find ways to circumvent the dependency problem. A solution would be to provide the user with sample files. These files can be prepared specifically for the task in each chapter and all the user needs to do is retrieve these. A similar solution comes from providing backup files that users can activate when starting a new chapter. The backup maintains the build-up of a case, or file, without the dependency. 

A key problem in providing closure lies in handling the user’s prior knowledge and skill. Unless a task is very simple, users are likely to have forgotten what they have learned after a single moment of practice. People usually need several rounds of practice before they can perform a task more or less automatically. At the same time they also need to be able to do things without help at one time or another. This calls for support that fades away. Instructional design has a long history of using fading as a technique to increase user autonomy. Figure 1 shows how one can go about fading the support for the user. As you can see, fading generally means that the instructions gradually change from being action directives into goal statements. 

 Figure 1. To assist the user in activating a website, help was faded out gradually to increase learning and provide closure.

Misconception: Minimalism means brevity

Brevity is clearly implied by the term “minimalism”. Brevity is only a derived property, however. Minimalism asks developers to create genuine and intellectually engaging instructional opportunities for the user. They must include just the right amount of information, not too much or too little. This typically involves more development effort, particularly when it is first adopted by a designer or by an organization.

It typically costs more, not less, to start using minimalism as writers and developers need to reconsider some of most basic strategies and assumptions that guide their work. Minimalist design in documentation, as in architecture or music, requires identifying the core structures and content. It hinges on being able to make good decisions on what to do, say or show, and on what not to include. This requires more skilled developers and a greater development effort.

Misconception: minimalism does not support people who learn by reading

Minimalism is a use-centered and user-centered approach that values and supports the reading strategies that people spontaneously apply. But the adage that “quality writing provokes quality reading” also applies. Minimalism thus tries to find the right balance between accommodating to the user’s reading strategies and to using principles and techniques of good instructional design to evoke action-oriented reading.

The pervasive emphasis on learner activity in minimalism has led some to question whether minimalism is intended to serve learners who wish to read, or whether it can serve them. A first reaction to this notion is that it is by no means clear that there are people who can learn skills merely by reading about them. A second reaction is that even learners who declare that they like to read and study before doing, spontaneously begin interacting with the system as they begin to read their (minimal) manual. 

A main idea in minimalism has been the attempt to encourage sequential processing of the manual and to support a random access approach as well. This can be realized by carefully structuring the manual around user scenarios. Also, one should not expect users to process the manual in a linear fashion. As a rule, users frequently look back to earlier sections and chapters, peek ahead at chapters and sections, and redo chapters or tasks. Providing for the proper headings can be a meaningful way to accommodate to this need for consultation. 

Research reveals that the users attend to most of the information presented in the minimal manual and that they process that information as intended. For example, one study found that 94% of all action steps were executed rather than read or skipped, 78% of the users checked the screen when prompted by the manual and 60% of the users who made a mistake used the error information in the manual to correct it. This is sound proof that minimalism can lead to quality writing that provokes quality reading. 


  • 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.