Minimalism vs brevity

In its online courses, STC is offering a certification in minimalism writing which is introduced as follows:

« Session 1: What is Minimalism?
 Minimalist writing isn’t just deleting content, it is writing to deliver a lot of value in as few words as possible. It is the conjunction between clarity and brevity. »

LoveBrevity What do we mean by Brevity? Webster writes it’s « The use of few words to say something »

Interesting point of view… but not shared by the minimalism gurus (the originators) John M Carroll and Dr. Hans van der Meij.

In a recent interview, STC Past President Nicky Bleiel, asked:
 « I was going to ask you about the essay that you and Hans van der Meij wrote for that book. Minimalism is a hot topic now… because it’s considered essential for mobile outputs …But Nurnberg Funnel minimalism… does not mean concise, necessarily, though I’m sure you wouldn’t dispute that conciseness and good editing is important. So if minimalism  does not exactly mean brevity, how would you explain it? »

John Carroll: « I would say that brevity is more a consequence of minimalism than a principle… Trying to facilitate the learner’s initiative and goals and aspirations and impede them less, you will most likely end up with a briefer design ».


First misconception: …Minimalism is brevity

In « 10 misconceptions about minimalism » (Published in association with the Society for Technical Communication) Carroll and van der Meij make it clear: BookTower« Wantonly slashing text and leaving other design characteristics unchanged will not lead to a minimalist design. »

Both authors insist: « The central principle in minimalism is task orientation »

Brevity is NOT part of the 4 principles of minimalism: « Brevity is clearly implied in the term minimalism… but  it has never been the totality of the approach.   Simplifying … makes minimalism easier for commentators to explain and discuss. …it also yields a view of minimalism that is a caricature ».


Does brevity relate to cost savings?

 « Managers.. may not care about producing more effective training and documents; they just want to think less about supporting users and spend less of their ressources on it… They may wish to believe that designing and publishing fewer pages… will cost less, but this reasoning rests on serious fallacy: minimalism typically requires more skilled (expensive) developers and greater development effort. »


Cost-effective minimalism

dollar_Fila_A_Linge.jpg« Minimalism can be cost-effective … by focusing on responding creatively to actual users and actual tasks. The key savings in effort are to the user, not to the developer. Minimalism significantly reduces training time, while supporting better user performance (between 25% and 40%). »

 


Making (minimalist) coffee

Let’s take the example of the CVA 2662 Nespresso coffee machine  published by Miele for customers in the USA and Canada. It is 68 page-long. The real task (« Making coffee ») comes page 17 and starts with pre-warming the cup:

To pre-warm the cup with steam
– Select heating with steam using < or >
–  Press the steam lever down
– Push the lever up to stop the steam from dispensing
– Pour away any excess water

Brevity would imply the following model:

To pre-warm the cup with steam

1. Select heating with steam using < or >
2. Press the steam lever down

and the instructions would stop here, since we want to make it brief (don’t we?)
and the cup has been heated.

Or not?

Because he focuses on supporting the user to perform a task, the minimalist author
provides the complete procedure so that the end-user is satisfied with the result.

The « Minimalistic » procedure would look like this:

To pre-warm the cup with steam

1. Select heating with steam using < or >
2. Press the steam lever down
3. Push the lever up to stop the steam from dispensing
4. Pour away any excess water


So what? How to be minimalist then?

Let’s consider Heuristic 1.1: Provide an immediate opportunity to act. Hot_George_comment
People want to do something with a product and not to read about it.

For example, don’t overwhelm the coffee lover with 16 pages of useless information before he can get to the essential task: making coffee!

Another recommendation to follow is: « ...the user’s actions should not be obstructed by whatever help is offered; users should not experience the support as an imposition »

HotWaterIsVeryHotFor example, the minimalist author would get rid of such an obstruction (page 17 of the manual)

 


Let’s summarize

Minimalist authors provide the complete information necessary to perform a task. No Brevity here.  But they do perform a thorough selection of content and skip what is not needed.  It’s not needed because:

  •  the end user already KNOWS it
  •  it is not relevant to a task (introduction, general information, etc.)

Let’s remember: minimalism is neither linked to brevity, nor to a suitcase!


It does not hurt to read some founding literature …


 

N.B. Texts in italics are excerpts from « Ten Misconceptions about Minimalism » by John M. Carroll and Hans van der Meij in Minimalism beyond the Nurnberg Funnel

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Établissement de formation à la documentation technique

Formatrice : Marie-Louise Flacke

Graduate of the American
University of Paris
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