Minimalism and Dogma

Let’s talk about minimalism for a minute.

A recent emailing on the subject from JoAnn Hackos emphasized the need that

“..users get only the information they need… And, the more languages we translate means that we cannot afford to add “nice to know” extras that fail to help the users succeed in reaching their goals. Their critical goal — getting their tasks done as quickly and efficiently as possible.”

I’d guess very few of us would argue with this position. At the same time, I’m not sure we’d all agree on what constitutes “nice to know extras that fail to help the users succeed in reaching their goals.”

If we define extras as “any non procedural information,” for example, we come into conflict with another important trend, the need to include decision support in on line help. Getting tasks done quickly and efficiently might mean, in some circumstances, having the answer to “why would I want to do this?”

Let’s be clear – most of the time, these days, we’re talking about software, and thus, online help. If you’re doing paper documentation, or even electronic, but related to electro-mechanical operations, or chemical processes, or manufacturing operations, you might have a different view of what constitutes essential information, even if you buy into minimalism as a principle.

The answer to “why would I want to do this?” or other decision oriented questions needs to be clear, concise, and limited to the immediate need. In most cases, probably not more than a sentence or two.

It means that those of us with an editorial function have a particularly onerous task. If we’re to practice minimalism with intelligence, and really provide service to our users, we need to avoid the dogmatic approach of ideas such as, “if it’s not procedural, cut it out.”  On the other hand, if we favour too much conceptual information, we’re not minimalist any more.

How much is enough?  How much is too much?

I’d like to take a stab at a simple guideline: ask yourself, “if I didn’t know anything about this software (or whatever it is), would I know when and why I need to do this?”

If the answer is “yes,” see if there’s anything to strip away, and ask the question again. Keep at it, until the answer is “no.” Then put back the smallest number of bits that make it “yes” again.

As you might imagine, this can’t be done by the numbers – it requires judgement, intelligence, and intuition.

What do you think?

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About Ray

Ray Gallon is co-founder of The Transformation Society, a research and consulting company, and owner of Culturecom, a company that provides business process improvement through communication. He has over 40 years as a communicator, first as an award-winning radio producer and journalist, then in the technical content industries. His management experience includes a stint as program manager of WNYC-FM, New York City’s public radio station. Ray has always been interested in the meeting point between technology and culture, and has used his broad experience to advantage with companies such as IBM, General Electric Health Care, Alcatel, 3M, and the OECD, as well as in smaller companies and startup enterprises. He has been quoted as saying, “Since the beginning, I have been, paradoxically, communicating and shooting myself in the foot. I find that this combination leads to fascinating outcomes that have made me one of the most fortunate people I know.” Ray is a university lecturer and a speaker at events throughout the world. He has contributed articles and chapters to many books and periodicals and is the editor of the recently published “Language of Technical Communication” (XML Press).
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2 Responses to Minimalism and Dogma

  1. Tom Johnson says:

    I was just reading some advice from Hackos on minimalism as well. When people say, cut the extraneous information that users don’t need, it always puzzles me how that judgment is made, because some users seem to need a lot more information than others. How do you handle providing content for both novice and advanced users without underinforming one or overinforming the other?

    • Ray says:

      Tom, yes, it’s part of the problem.

      One solution is the idea of “progressive disclosure.” You provide layers of help, that start with something like a rich tooltip, with an overview one click away, and the full monty just one more click away.

      Kan-ban information, “just in time.” The challenge, of course, is to provide “all” and “only” the needed information, especially in the light of your question, which I might rephrase as, “for whom?”

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