I attended a seminar on somefink called "minimalism" recently. Naturally, what this is depends entirely on the context. If I were an art historian, you might think I was talking of Stella or Serra. If I were an architect, you might think I was talking of Mies van der Rohe.

But I am a technical writer. (Now, stay awake. I'm not finished yet. You don't want me to tip Tilted Arc [1981] over on you, now do you? It's heavy.) Talk of minimalism in technical writing circles always comes 'round to JoAnn Hackos, technical communications superstar. Yes, we have them too. Superstars, that is. You haven't heard of them, but they're out there. And Hackos is their Queen.

The seminar was unbelievable!

Here are the highlights:
- We write too much; no one reads it. (This manual..., In this chapter..., This document assumes..., Before you begin..., Introduction..., Getting to Know the Product Features..., Navigating the User Interface..., Document Conventions..., Related Publications..., Overview of...Using the Such and Such Feature....) Yawn, yawn, yawn. All a waste of time and space.
- We don't provide what people want. (Just tell me how to increase the volume of my cell phone! Just tell me how to increase the volume on my cell phone! Just tell me how to increase the volume on my cell phone!)

We meticulously document every software feature, yet we're still somehow missing the point.

Why? Because we don't understand what customers are actually trying to do with the product. It's actually easier to write from spec, from talking to engineers, and from looking at the user interface than it is to talk to users. So that's what most of us do. But it won't do. It won't do.

I was pretty inspired to do things differently. Stay tuned. I hope I'll have more to tell you soon.


Mark Hanington said...

It's a funny thing, to think that you will soon have more to say on the topic of minimalism. Makes my heart hurt, kind of.

fiona-h said...

ha ha!!! funny. I wrote a report on it for work, and did my darnest to keep it to 2 pages.

richard said...

Always nice to be inspired! Any way to see a copy of the report?

fiona-h said...

Sure. And then you'll find out that for all my efforts, I didn't keep it to 2 pages! (It's 4)

Mr. Kite said...

In general, I agree with the minimalism concept when it comes to tech writing.

I also believe that there are levels of minimalism. With a highly technical subject, you might be tempted to cut too much content to achieve minimalism. It all boils down to increasing usability.

When I worked where you do, I tried to keep my documentation clear and concise, without all the "bells and whistles" that can get in the way of the reader.

On the flip side, there were other writers creating the same type of documentation that, in an attempt to be thorough, were writing overly complicated (in strucutre and content) material. That documentation, I think, was impossible to use.

Just my two cents. Kudos to you for proposing minimalism at you job. Good luck getting buy in.

fiona-h said...

Yes, we'll see! The good news is that it's not an "all or nothing" approach. Even if we just make a few changes, we can still make the docs more usable.

Molly said...

Hmmm. I've been harping on those topics to my team for 3 years now. I think I see the problem. All this time I should have just been going around conducting seminars because perhaps then I'd have an audience that actually listens?

fiona-h said...

Yes - you'd be preaching to the converted!

Darren said...

Ideally, a product doesn't even need a manual. If I have to actually read any text for a new technical product (as opposed to looking at a few pictographs in order to set it up), then that product is not well designed IMHO. (Of course, this is more easily achieved with a consumer product than with some beastly thing like Visual Studio .NET which is meant for professionals... but in that case, I don't *want* minimalism! I want exhaustive, on-line, and searchable.)

Lisa said...

Ha! This is doubly interesting to me, having just finished an art history degree AND having just begun an interaction design gig! I'm glad to hear that a user-centred approach is being talked about in technical writing circles. Of course, if we interaction designers did our jobs properly in the first place you wouldn't have to explain so much!