One of the most important and difficult parts of technical documentation concerns writing in a concise manner. Technical writing is different than writing fiction or magazine articles, where a mood may be set or--in some cases--where space must be filled. (People seldom buy thin books.)
Sure. We’ve been reducing word count in procedures for some time. It’s time to do more, however. As noted in an earlier post, we have to think mobile. Think small screens and small devices. Screen real estate will be at a premium.
In reality, the user just wants a brief, clear explanation of a concept or task. The user will glance and skim — reading behaviors hardly worthy of the elitist grammarian who argues the finer points of “which” versus “that” in restrictive clauses.
Aaron and I advocate minimalism in documentation. Our definition of minimalism differs slightly from how some people may define the term, and we take some heat for it. But no matter how you define it, the aim of minimalist doucmentation is always the same. To give user the information they need in the most concise, readable, and accessible way.
The remarkable growth of the information technology industry has created a tremendous opportunity for people with skill putting words on paper. Technical writers, once a rare and highly skilled position, are now as common as fruit flies—though they take up a lot more space. Yet the pay is pretty good considering how little work they actually do, so young English-major weenies desperate for employment continue to swarm around IT companies, hoping for a bit of rotting fru—er, looking for a plum position.
Is less always more? I’m not sure. But if Apple’s minimalistic designs are any indicator of trends, minimalism in documentation is something to pay attention to. Here are five ideas for minimizing documentation.
The needless repetition of words and the repeating of ideas is everywhere - in newspapers, books, magazines, e-mails, television, and even in conversation. They’re called redundancies and the English language is full of them. In fact, research shows that about 50 percent of English is redundant.
In the Nurnberg Funnel: Designing Minimalist Instruction, John Carroll presents some helpful ideas based on some useful research on how the initial self-instruction (often called 'tutorials') should be developed and written.
According to Plain English Campaign (www.plainenglish.co.uk), plain English is "… something that the intended audience can read, understand and act upon the first time they read it. Plain English takes into account design and layout as well as language." Many organisations have found that plain English brings commercial advantages.
I’m advocating boiling the documentation down to the essentials. Remove any superfluous material. Tell the user how to do things with a piece of software or a gadget, not what that something can do. You might wind up with documentation that’s just a set of procedures connected together by linking material and cross references. Don’t bog them down with what’s not necessary for them to get things done in a fast and efficient way.
Can using minimalist documentation improve accuracy and learning speed for beginners as well as for advanced users? I tested this question using Microsoft Access for Windows 95 ® and three different third-party manuals explaining this product. Then I set up three main tasks for the user in a usability test. For each task, I provided the task description in blue type, and then copied the appropriate documentation in black. Documentation for each of the three tasks was reprinted from a different book.