What is Minimalism?

By | 2013/07/02

Ask what minimalism is (in a Tech Comm context), and you are likely to get a recitation of the four principles of minimalism.

Per JoAnn Hackos, the four basic principles of minimalism are

♦ Principle 1: Choose an action-oriented approach
♦ Principle 2: Anchor the tool in the task domain
♦ Principle 3: Support error recognition and recovery
♦ Principle 4: Support reading to do, study, and locate

This is the explanation from the inside. It is equivalent to answering the question, what is a can of peaches, by saying it is a can containing syrup and sliced peaches. What such a definition lacks is the explanation of why you would put something as wonderful as a fresh peach into a can. It is the what but not the why.

The why of canned peaches is that peaches are highly perishable and spoil quickly. You don’t generally can apples because they keep well; you can peaches because they don’t. Without that understanding of the relative perishability of different foods, you don’t understand what canning is for, and you might use it inappropriately or do it incorrectly.

Without understanding the why of minimalism, you might use it inappropriately or incorrectly. The why of  Minimalism is this:

Minimalism is an accommodation to the paradox of sense making.

The paradox of sense making is the phrase John Carroll used to describe what he and his colleagues observed in their experiments on people learning computer systems. What we might expect is that people with the least knowledge of a system would rely on the documentation the most, in order to guide them through an unfamiliar landscape. Novices read the docs; experts can figure it out for themselves — that is the classical model. What Carroll observed was the exact opposite: the less people knew, and the less experience they had, the less they used the docs.

The reason, and the paradox, is that people approach a new system with a existing mental model of the task and the way it is done. The documentation that describes the new tool conflicts with that mental model. If a procedure tells them to do something that does not fit with their mental model, they trust their mental model more than the procedure.

As Carroll puts it:

People are situated in a world more real to them than a series of steps, a world that provides rich context and convention for everything they do. People are always already trying things out, thinking things through, trying to relate what they already know to what is going on, recovering from errors. In a word, they are too busy learning to make much use of the instructions. This is the paradox of sense-making.

[T]he motivation to interact meaningfully in a situation is … the root of the learning paradox: to be able to interact meaningfully, one must acquire meaningful skills and understanding. But one can acquire these only through meaningful interaction.

What Carroll’s experiments showed was that the systematic approach to instruction then in common use performed very poorly as a learning tool because it actively interfered with the users’ attempts to create meaningful interactions that they could learn from. The point of minimalism was to interfere less and support more:

What is important is the key idea of minimizing the extent to which instructional materials obstruct learning and refocusing the design of training materials on the goal of supporting learner-directed activity and accomplishment.

A really important thing to note here is that minimalism is not a solution to the paradox of sense making. Carroll is unequivocal on this point:

No simple, comprehensive, logical treatment of the paradox of sense-making is possible. The tension between personally meaningful interaction and guidance by a structured curriculum entails a priori limitations on how much we can ever accelerate learning.

Users, no less than instructional designers, are searching for the Nurnberg Funnel, for a solution to the paradox of sense-making. But there is not and never was a Nurnberg Funnel. There is no instantaneous step across the paradox of sense-making.

Minimalism is about minimizing the interference of the instructions with the user’s sense-making process. It is not about preventing users from ever making errors, but about helping them to recover from the errors they will inevitably make. An error, in fact, is the teachable moment that the content can exploit.

Thus while the principles are fine as a prescription for a help system that achieves minimalist goals, knowing the principles alone does not suffice to create help that minimizes interference with the user’s sense making process.

What the principles alone fail to do is exactly what the paradox of sense-making talked about: they fail to break the reader from their current mental model. If your current mental model is one of systematic instruction (and most people’s is, no matter what field they work in). You can read and absorb the principles but you will apply them in the context of systematic instruction. What you will produce will likely be brief systematic instruction.

One place we see this clearly is in the DITA-encouraged practice of creating stand-alone help topics consisting of almost nothing but a procedure. This may seem like perfect adherence to the first principle of minimalism (choose an action-oriented approach) but it is exactly what Carroll’s experiments demonstrated does not work. People will not follow procedures because their current mental model is more real to them than what the procedure is telling them.

To break yourself of the systematic instruction mindset, mere instruction is never going to be sufficient (as the paradox of sense making makes clear). It will require experience. Since it is difficult to set up the same kinds of experiments that Carroll performed, or to imbue smaller experiments with sufficient rigor, the next best thing is to turn to humanity’s greatest substitute for experience: stories.

Fortunately, John Carroll is a good storyteller. For anyone with an interest in this field, his extensive accounts of his experiments make riveting reading. Find yourself a copy of The Nurnberg Funnel and read it. You’ll thank me later.


8 thoughts on “What is Minimalism?

  1. Tom Johnson

    Hey, I love the direction you’re headed with this. I didn’t see that last paragraph coming:

    “Since it is difficult to set up the same kinds of experiments that Carroll performed, or to imbue smaller experiments with sufficient rigor, the next best thing is to turn to humanity’s greatest substitute for experience: stories.”

    I think you are right. One time long ago I once created “scenario” type topics, which narrated various situations for users. For each action in the scenario I linked to a topic that had specific detail and steps. One scenario could have a dozen different links. I never got much feedback on the scenarios, but I regret not doing more documentation like this.

    In a sense, answering the user’s question is like telling a story, because the user’s question is usually a conflict, and the answer a resolution. The definition of a story is a good conflict resolved (producing change of some kind).

    I’m wondering if you’ll give stories a bit more detail in an upcoming post, mainly explaining what you mean by story, how you incorporate story into help, and so on.

  2. Mark Baker Post author

    Actually, Tom, I had not thought of that angle when I wrote the post. What I meant with the reference to storytelling is that reading The Nurnberg Funnel is a good way to convince yourself that the paradox of sense making actually exists, thus resetting your mental model that systematic instruction works.

    I had not taken what seems like the obvious next step (now you have taken it) of asking, is storytelling and alternative to minimalism as a way of accommodating to the paradox of sense making in technical communications.

    There are all sorts of reasons for jumping to an immediate yes. The problem is, how to you apply storytelling in a useful way to technical communications? Carroll could recount his experiments, which essentially consisted of observing people are they struggled to master a task. That give you the classic story structure of a trial or a quest. Can you find similar story structures in typical tech comm tasks, and do so in a way that is not just an annoying gloss. That requires some thought.

  3. Marie-L. Flacke

    Interesting post, Mr. Baker

    Still, I am wondering on which planet you have been living those past 10 years.

    The references you mentionned are out-of-date:

    (a) Dr. JoAnn Hackos’s clarified the 4 principles in an article available online: Minimalism updated 2012

    (b) John Carroll was not alone doing this research. Check Dr. Hans van der Meij’s Website:

    Van der Meij co-authored part of John Carroll’s second book on minimalism: “Minimalism beyond the Nurnber Funnel”
    In June 2013, Dr. Hans van der Meij made an excellent presentation about minimalism and instructions at the Information Energy 2013 conference. A pity you missed it.

    (c) John Carroll updated his first book (The Nurnberg Funnel).
    “Minimalism Beyond the Nurnberg Funnel” has been published in 1998!…

    BTW, you might be interested in reading chapter 3 of “Minimalism Beyond the Nurnberg Funnel”. The title is “10 Misconceptions about Minimalism”

    Thanks a lot for your attention,

    1. Mark Baker Post author

      Thanks for the comment, Marie-L.

      I am well aware of these sources. I was writing a blog post, not a scholarly article, so I did not feel an academic need to prove I had read everything. Nothing that has come after has invalidated Carroll’s research, not improved on his description of it. That makes his original book still valuable, for the reasons I attempted to explain in the post.

  4. Marcia Riefer Johnston

    Mark, I especially like your statement, “An error, in fact, is the teachable moment that the content can exploit.” If only it were easy to anticipate the typical errors that learners will make!

    1. Mark Baker Post author

      Thanks Marcia,

      Indeed one of the biggest problems we face is trying to anticipate the typical errors that learners will make. And, of course, the paradox of sense making works against us here because we are not well placed to misapprehend in the same way they do.

      This is why I think tech writers have to take user-content much more seriously than they often do. Users are often in a much better position to help each other recover from errors, not because they can anticipate them, but because they have made and recovered from them.

      This is yet another good reason why tech comm content should be on the Web, so that users can find user and company content in the same place with a single search.

  5. Dwight

    Thanks for another helpful piece Mark. About storytelling: I’ve noticed that effective docs tend to have a sense of storytelling. The story isn’t necessarily overt in the same way that case studies and scenarios have a clear beginning, middle, and end. But, in a well-written doc, the story of the tool, and how the user will come to use it, often comes through in a subtle way. For example, I find story in the introduction to this doc by Apple: http://developer.apple.com/library/ios/#documentation/userexperience/conceptual/tableview_iphone/AboutTableViewsiPhone/AboutTableViewsiPhone.html. It tells me what the tool is for, what I’ll be doing with it, and how the journey begins.


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