Minimalism (technical communication)

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Minimalism in structured writing, topic-based authoring and technical writing in general is based on the ideas of John Millar Carroll and others.

Minimalism strives to reduce interference of information delivery with the user’s sense-making process. It does not particularly preclude users from ever making mistakes, but tries to help them improve from any errors they make. An error, in fact, is a teachable moment that content can exploit.

Like Robert E. Horn's work on Information Mapping, John Carroll's principles of Minimalism were based in part on cognitive studies and learning research at Harvard and Columbia University, by Jerome Bruner, Jerome Kagan, B.F. Skinner, George A. Miller, and others.

Carroll argued that training materials should be constructed as short task-oriented chunks, not lengthy monolithic user manuals that explain everything in a long narrative fashion.

The historian of technical communication R. John Brockmann points out that task orientation had been enunciated as a principle a decade earlier at IBM by Fred Bethke and others in a report on IBM Publishing Guidelines.

Carroll observed that modern users are often already familiar with much of what is described in the typical long manual. What they need is the information to solve the particular task at hand. They should be encouraged to do them with a minimum of systematic instruction.

Darwin Information Typing Architecture (DITA) is built on Carroll's theories of Minimalism and Horn's theories of Information Mapping.

Minimalism is a large part of JoAnn Hackos' recent workshops and books on information development using structured writing and the DITA XML standard.

Good writing means that the message is directly clear to the projected audience. Adopting a minimalist method may appear, in the short-term, to cost more as writers have to cut up and rephrase content into single free-standing chunks. However, in the longer-term there are real cost- saving benefits, particularly in the areas of translation and localization, where often sum is on a ‘per word’ basis. But the greatest advantage for companies is user fulfillment. The less time a customer spends working out how to do something, the more likely they are to purchase again in the future


  • IBM Publishing Guidelines (1981)
  • Carroll, John M. (1990). The Nurnberg Funnel - Designing Minimalist Instruction for Practical Computer Skill. MIT. 
  • Carroll, John M. (1998). Minimalism Beyond the Nurnberg Funnel. MIT. 
  • Hackos, JoAnn T. & Redish, Janice C. (1998). User and Task Analysis for Interface Design. Wiley. 
  • Brockmann, R. John (1986). Writing Better Computer User Documentation - From Paper to Online. Wiley-Interscience. 
  • Brockmann, R. John (1998). From Millwrights to Shipwrights to the Twenty-First Century: Explorations in a History of Technical Communication in the United States. Hampton. 
  • Hackos, JoAnn T. (2006). Information Development: Managing Your Documentation Projects, Portfolio, and People. Wiley.