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Minimalist Theory

Sir Alfred North Whitehead (1929) coined the term “inert knowledge” for the kind of knowledge schools typically teach. Students often fail to use knowledge gained in one setting (schools) in another key setting (on the job). Thus their knowledge is inert and is of no use to them when they need it. [Learn more about Minimalist Theory on www.GetToThePoint.ca]

Minimalist theory by Carroll (1990) suggests that:

1. All learning tasks should be meaningful and self-contained activities.

2. Learners should be given realistic projects as quickly as possible.

3. Instruction should permit self-directed reasoning and improvising by increasing the number of active learning activities.

4. Training materials and activities should provide for error recognition and recovery.

5. There should be a close linkage between the training and actual system.

The critical idea of minimalist theory is to minimize the extent to which instructional materials obstruct learning and focus the design on activities that support learner-directed activity and accomplishment.

People don’t want to read a manual, whether it’s a 300-page tome or a clean, well-written one.

New users often suffer not from too little support but from too much of the wrong kind of support.

Develop the best pedagogy you can. See how well you can do. Then analyze the nature of what you did that worked.  Jerome Bruner

We ask the questions; “What do people want to do” and, “how do they want to do it?”  Minimalist instructional designs have produced faster and more successful learning. Overly comprehensive materials would exhaust the patience and the technical backgrounds of these new users (Davis, 1984: Scharer, 1983).

Applying Minimalist Principles, Strategies and Techniques (Susan M. J. Lester, Information Designer and Developer, Dupont Company)

  1. Allow users to get started fast by taking action-centered (or user-centered) approaches by giving users enough information to get their real tasks done right away. Don’t try to cover every function
  2. Focus on the users’ actions and not the products functions.
  3. Get users engaged quickly by omitting long introductions and cutting down on repetition and verbiage.
  4. Rely on users to think and improvise-provide enough information so the users will explore on their own and discover solutions to specific problems.
  5. Exploit what people already know
  6. Support error recognition and recovery-prevent mistakes whenever possible. Some errors can’t be avoided, but you can provide error information that supports error detection, diagnosis, and recovery.

Strategies for getting to know your users

  1. Understand their goals and tasks
  2. Know how they interact with the product in their working environment
  3. Know what words they use to find or understand the tasks
  4. Understand what they already know about a subject
  5. Anticipate where they might run into trouble or cause errors.

Simplify Your Writing

  1. Edit text thoroughly; cut unnecessary verbiage.
  2. Establish a consistent structure-use style templates and documentation standards.
  3. Organize the headings logically and consistently.
  4. Provide most frequently used information first.
  5. Create a thorough index using words that different users might use.
  6. Provide a clear overview in the table of contents.
  7. Avoid long introductions.
  8. Visualize the information with graphics with callouts to replace long information.
  9. Use tables, diagram, and flowcharts to condense or replace text.
  10. Minimize screenshots to show only what applies (or circle it).
  11. Short (30-60 minutes), task and action oriented topics.

Professional educators, teachers, trainers, librarians, etc. should read this book and have a sound understanding of the principles of Minimalism. Software engineers and computer scientists need to review this title in light of their efforts to make computer programs and the documentation supporting those programs more user friendly. This text is a sound investment which belongs in every academic library and in every technical communicator’s collection. (Book Review by Bill T. Johnson, Texas Tech University Library, http://www.library.ucsh.edu/istl/98-summer/review3.html)

John M. Carroll is Professor of Computer Science and Psychology and the Head of the Department of Computer Science at Virginia Tech.

Carroll, J.M. (1990). The Nurnberg Funnel, MA: MIT Press

Carroll, J.M. (1998). Minimalism beyond the Nurnberg Funnel, MA: MIT Press

Eiler, M.A. (1997). Minimalism and Documentation Downsizing: The Issues and the Debate. The Newsletter of the Chicago Chapter of the Society of Technical Communication. 39.4

Whitehead, A. N. (1929). The Aims of Education, The Macmillan Company

Wilson, B.G., Jonassen, D.H. & Cole, P. (1993). Cognitive approaches to instructional design. In G.M. Piskurich (ed.), The ASTD handbook of instructional technology (pp. 21.1-21.22). New York: McGraw-Hill.

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