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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It’s Not Cause and Effect, It’s the Content, Stupid

There is so much debate going on about whether the guy who shot Rep. Giffords was influenced by communication such as Sarah Palin’s crosshairs, or was just a lone nut case.

Friends, IT DOESN’T MATTER!

Even a lone nut case is affected by environmental factors, and the communicational environment in the U.S.A. has been poisoned for a good 20 years now.

It’s in the air, and anyone can feel it.

When you live away and you come for a visit, you feel it so thick you can cut it with a dull plastic end of a lifelike plastic Kalatchnikoff barrel.

When it’s in the air, the nut cases will pick it up.

So will others.

Who cares if Loughner read Palin’s (or other extremists’) site or not? These sites didn’t cause the shooting, they created the atmosphere that helped someone decide that it was OK to shoot.

Content matters.

A Rant About Communication Style

OK, in theory, I should not be writing politics here, this blog is about technical communication.

BUT………………

Recent events in the U.S. bring up a question that is related to communication, albeit not technical.

The recent (yesterday) shooting in Arizona, it seems to me, is a logical conclusion of the hate mongering that began back in the 90’s in U.S. political rhetoric.  While it is not exclusively the domain of the Republican party, it seems to predominate on that side of the political fence.

It started with the hate campaigns launched against then President Clinton.  It started with pure lies (yes, I KNOW they were lies) told by a senior senator and former presidential candidate regarding the Canadian health care system when Hilary Clinton was attempting to cobble together some sort of universal health care plan for the U.S.

I know they were lies because I am a citizen of several countries, including Canada, and have lived under the Canadian health care system – something the U.S. senators have not.

Since that time, the entire tone of political rhetoric has hardened, and become still more aggressive and violent. This includes radio commentators like Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck, who function by innuendo and suggestion, without backing up their assertions with facts (who needs them?).

I would remind everyone, that this tactic, known as “The Big Lie,” was admirably practiced by one Joseph Goebbels during a small military skirmish known as the Second World War.

The Reagan and Baby Bush administrations (essentially the same folks) honed these techniques to perfection – see George Lakoff’s admirable analysis, Whose Freedom? for details.

The now notorious cross-hair post on Sarah Palin’s web site that included Gabrielle Giffords as a “target” is a perfect example of the kind of hard rhetoric I’m talking about.

Let’s be clear here – I am not taking a stand for or against any political position in this blog, it’s not the place to do it.  I am making a very loud, protesting cry against the tone and style of political communication in this day and age.

Ms. Palin is entitled to her opinions about universal health care, but she is not entitled to publish inflammatory texts that suggest attacking (however metaphorically) other human beings. When she tweets out “don’t retweet, reload” to the world, this is, in my view, the kind of limitation to free speech that justice Frankfurter referred to when he said the first amendment does not include the right to yell “fire” in a crowded theatre.

I hope Ms. Palin will think twice, three times, and more, before publishing or spouting more “shoot from the hip” aggressive attacks. She should be ashamed.  I fear she won’t be, and that, also, is alarming.

To the Palins, Limbaughs, Becks, Bachmans and other demagogues of media or politics, I say with fervor and sincerity, the fact that someone disagrees with your political position does not render them  a traitor to their country or a bad person.  The fact that you paint them as such, does render you one.

There – I’ve started slipping down the same slope.  Let’s not go there.

A Beautiful Example of Transformation

Friends, check out this video:

It’s a great example of what Edward Tufte has been writing about for decades, and a marvelous demonstration of the power of simplicity to tell an important story.

Check out the site that posted this, Information is beautiful, to see more of the same kind of transformation thinking.

I have written elsewhere about the need for a transformation society (not an information society), where the accumulation of information becomes less important, information gets de-commodified, and is transformed into knowledge, know-how and understanding.

This seems a daunting task, and yet these people have done a part of it so simply, clearly, and (seemingly) effortlessly.

The video embedded above (and you can find a version for the U.K. in pounds sterling, too) shows clearly how we have developed an economy of debt, where we prefer to overspend and play financial games, than to put a relatively small amount of money into really solving some of the world’s problems.

Our information accumulation society has had something to do with this phenomenon, so it is wonderful to see the same technology applied to demonstrate clearly that this is a road we do not want to continue following.

Next step:  Let’s find ways to demonstrate how we can use the technology to implement these solutions.

More About Communities of Interest

In my last post about WikiLeaks, I used the term, “community of interest.”  What’s this all about?

Let’s start with a very simple analogy:  Primitive humans, in prehistoric times.  These folks quickly formed communities of interest, based on the paleontological record.  Why?

  • Not because they look alike
  • Not because they have a family relationship
  • Not because a psychologist told them they ought to do it
  • Not based on advice from the most recent self-help book…

They formed communities because they were hungry, and catching a mammoth requires a group effort!

What this means, in reality, is that our notion of “community” as a cooperative group working in some sort of altruistic harmony towards a common goal or common welfare, is not a complete definition.

Communities can form for very short-term reasons, and for very selfish ones.  Communities of interest on the internet form and dissolve all the time, and can often have shifting composition and purposes. This mobility of community is an interesting phenomenon. As the youngest generations, those who have grown up with Facebook, Twitter and the like, mature into adulthood, it will be interesting to see how the “moral” idea of community gets changed.

Are we headed towards a world where “community” is defined purely by self-interest?  Will the variety of human motivation survive the era of instant gratification?

The community of interest organized around WikiLeaks is infuriated at what seems to be a conspiracy to close the site.  This could be purely altruistic in nature, or could be motivated by a generalised anti-authoritarianism fueled by anger and frustration in the wake of events such as the recent financial crisis.

Whatever the motivation, the tools of contemporary communication technologies are playing a role not only in accompanying social change, but in driving it.