Minimalism: Opportunity or Menace?

Subject: Minimalism: Opportunity or Menace?
From: Steven Jong <SteveJong -at- AOL -dot- COM>
Date: Thu, 23 Jan 1997 13:13:35 -0500

As a structured documentation disciple, I think I understand minimalism. In
fact, I believe I am a minimalist at heart. However, I worry that the surface
effects of minimalism--drastic reductions in page counts--gives
non-publications managers (think of Dilbert's pointy-haired manager)
dangerously wrong ideas. We may understand the distinction between user
domains, but our patrons do not.

At Digital one ambitious young doc supervisor caused the rest of us no end of
trouble with a self-serving presentation to upper (non-doc) management about
how he had cut page counts by half. In reality, they were cut by his writers
from the *proposed* doc set to the *actual* doc set, meaning truthfully that
the execution was better than the planning. However, upper management siezed
on the 'cut-by-half' idea and decreed that all our doc sets would be cut by
half. This hurt particularly in areas where careful, minimalist writing had
already occurred. Have you observed similarly pointy-haired decrees?

Microsoft's documentation is clearly a highly visible example, but of what? A
92-page operating system user's guide is breathtaking; is that *all* of it?
It's comparable to the original Apple Macintosh User's Guide, which wasn't
long, either. But that book didn't tell the whole story; I still have my copy
of the original Macintosh Programmer's Guide, all three fat volumes. I would
be happier about the minimalist Windows 95 documentation if it weren't for
the simply enormous trade in third-party, after-market computer documentation
(some of it handled by Microsoft Press--now *there's* a model to follow!). If
a minimal book is all users need, why are they paying so much for such
substantial documentation?

You've heard of the letter-writer who apologized for not having the time to
write a shorter letter? Well, at our company we historically didn't have the
resources or time to write anything long. That's changing, but the old
attitudes remain. Just the other day a salesman said to me that "our users
don't have the time to wade [sic] through a 26-page manual." I wanted to club
him with a phone book 8^( Our products are simple, but not *that* simple; and
our larger clients are demanding more information.

You can turn a hundred gallons of maple sap into a gallon of maple syrup, but
not by extraction; the process, boiling, is long and slow. Though I believe
in the minimalist writing process, I worry about having the results
arbitrarily imposed: "Thou shalt write no more than 50 pages per book." What
do you think?

-- Steve

Steven Jong, Documentation Group Leader ("Typo? What tpyo?")
Lightbridge, Inc, 281 Winter St., Waltham, MA 02154 USA
<jong -at- lightbridge -dot- com>, 617.672.4902 [voice], 617.890.2681 [FAX]

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