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.