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The Benefits of Minimalism

We writers are great inflators. We can take a simple half page describing a computer interface and in a few hours transform it into a 35-page document complete with glossaries, type conventions, overviews, introductions, mission statements, charts, clip art, and copyright pages full of disclaimers, trademark acknowledgements, and credits. The results will make the people in marketing and sales simply glow. The problem is very few people will ever read it.

Our teachers and editors have told us repeatedly how too many words get in the way of communication, especially when it comes to instructing someone doing a task. Many of them promote a minimalist approach to document design and management.

In the field of communications, "minimalism" is the self-described label that a group of researchers and writers apply to an action- and task-oriented approach. If you don't have the reader doing something in the first page or two, you miss a critical educational opportunity.

Minimalism's chief theorist is John M. Carroll, formerly of the IBM Watson Research Laboratories, now head of the Computer Sciences Dept. at Virginia Polytechnic Institute. In1990, Carroll published a series of essays in The Nurnberg Funnel: Designing Minimalist Instruction for Practical Computer Skill (MIT Press). His basic message was, "Get out of the way of the learner as much as possible." The key to the minimalist approach is to present the least amount of obstacles to the efforts of the learner. The goal is to let the learner get more out of the training experience by providing less overt training structure.

Carroll explained that "new users are not inclined to read training material. As one person we observed put it while flipping pages in a manual: 'This is just information.' People seem to be more interested in action, in working on real tasks, than in reading."

MIT Press later published a follow-up book edited by Carroll, Minimalism Beyond the Nurnberg Funnel. This work shows how communicators have embraced minimalism and reports on specific innovations and investigations. The contributors include STC luminaries JoAnn Hackos, Janice (Ginny) Redish, Stephanie Rosenbaum, Tricia Anson, John Brockmann, David K. Farkas, and Barbara Mirel.

In her previous work on Managing your Documentation Projects (Wiley), JoAnn Hackos applied minimalism to the process of document management. She writes: "Remember that the less information you produce, the less it will cost to publish and maintain. In general, we produce too much information for our customers because we lack detailed information about the characteristics of the audience and the tasks they need to perform... Investigate the possibility of developing the least possible information to satisfy audience needs."

Successful companies know that reducing the size and number of their documents is necessary to remain competitive in the information age. Minimalism is an important strategy for all communicators.

William H. DuBay
15903 Vincent Rd. N.W.
Poulsbo, WA 98370
Phone: 360 261 8955
Email: info@impact-information.com