Minimalism vs. Information Mapping: what's the best choice ?

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In an article dated April 2008, Bob Doyle provides a quasi-exhaustive recap about
 the different methods of document design.
Information Mapping (R) was developed in mid-60's by Robert Horn who identified 7 common"Information types" of a structured document:

  • classification, concept, principle, procedure, process, structure, and fact.


Structured authoring

Information Mapping is considered the birth of Structured Writing as Mike West explains in "Structured writing, structured documentation".

Information Mapping is a set of tools:
"Structured documentation is a way of planning and implementing the various phases of a writing project; and we may think of structured writing as a set of tools and techniques to be used by writers during the writing phase of a project"
If Information Mapping is the toolbox, what is minimalism?

Minimalism ?

Information Mapping(R) was designed to help engineers document their programming work (reports, descriptions, etc.). Let's say it's a writing guidance for non technical writers. Its structure is pretty rigid and not really designed for task-oriented activities; it is more a classification of information.

Minimalism was developed in the late '80s by John M. Carroll, member of an IBM team:
"It was task orientation carried to an extreme. Minimalism meant small non-linear chunks readable in any order. It emphasized reading To Do, not reading To Know or To Learn, a phrase first introduced by Ginny Redish"

Minimalism puts the END_USER in the center of the information development, not the writer. It focuses on the user's tasks. The minimalist writer ignores writing tools, GUI or product description. His first questions are always:

"Who is the end-user? What does he want to achieve with this product?"


Dr. JoAnn Hackos, expert both in Information Mapping (IM) and minimalism, published an interesting research article showing that 
"IM formatting makes absolutely no difference in user performance. It adds unnecessary words like the stem sentences: "Do we need all that glue?"
and considers "Information Mapping is outdated".

What is GLUE?

"Glue text is defined as transitional information intended to inform readers of what has come before or comes after a particular procedure, description, or explanation.
In topic-oriented authoring, which forms the basis for the DITA Model, transitional text has become problematic." (Dr. JoAnn Hackos)

So what ?

Talking of modular, DITA-ready documentation,  professional technical writers don't need to think about facts, principles, structure, etc.  In 2014, they focus on providing user-centered, useful and responsive documentation. The new challenges are findability and usability on Any device, anytime, anywhere... Do you really need a 4-paragraph Introduction on your Google Glass?

The next Minimalism workshop takes place in December 2014 (in English)


What's in a minimalism workshop?

What are you going to learn in a minimalist workshop?

No, you won't cut words and you'll go on writing complete, grammatically correct sentences.

You'll learn how to provide the necessary information to your users... and, above all, you'll learn how to respect your users.

Too often, information developers forget the essential: their user has
already a lot of knowledge and experience and this should be respected.


 (excerpt from TC World magazine)
1.    What is a user account?
2.    Set up a user account
    2.1    What is a set-up assistant?
    2.2    Create new user
    2.3    This is how it works: New user

3.    What is account management
    3.1    Configure control elements
    3.2    This is how it works: Customize account management 




The title format is disturbing because not consistent.This mix of instruction-like ("Set-up a user account") titles with questions, combined with statements ("This is how is works...") is a challenge for the end-user.

Questions are usually grouped in a FAQ and descriptions ("This is how it works...") belong in a tutorial, while instructions are the basics of any user guide (Installation Guide, Operator's guide, Maintenance manual, etc.)


The content is also quite surprising. 

Differentiating between "Set up a user account" and "Create new user" (*) needs some clarification. Where is the difference?

The "minimalist writer" considers: "When Charles, the database administrator, receives a request for a new user, how does he call the task: 'Setting up a user account' or 'Creating a new user'?
 Based on that, the writer starts drafting the instructions while maintaining a consistent terminology. Synonyms should be banned from any user documentation! They disturb the user : "Why another term? Why another phrase? Do they refer to different actions?"


Interesting is also point 3.2.
It aims at providing conceptual information ("this is how it works"...), but provides _instructions_: "Customize account management". The title format is similar to point 2.2 : "Create new user".  Another example of inconsistency. If it's a procedure, give it a procedural-type title (based on an action-verb).
Usually, users are not interested in knowing how it works. They want to perform a task to reach their goal. That's all!

USER (Respecting your users)

More significant here: the documentation designer forgot an essential point. 

The user is not stupid, he is not a 6-year old in charge of managing user accounts. This is a professional with at least 3 or 4 years of experience in user account management. 
As a technical author, do you feel like explaining this IT professional what a user account is?...

In the documentation process, technical communication professionals put the user first :  they define the user's profile, his previous knowledge, his work environment, etc.  It's the best way to respect the user and it's the best way to be respected as technical writer!

Proposed (minimalist) solution

1. Setting up a user account
1.1 Setting up a user account from the XXX page
1.2 Setting up a user account with the set-up assistant
2. Managing a user account
2.1 Configuring  control elements
2.2 Customizing the account management


Desperate situation: following the original model, it is obvious the documentation won't be DITA-ready. It is going to be a costly and painful migration to sort (and re-write) the content in tasks, concepts and references...


More information on Minimalism workshops

(*) wondering wether it's possible to create an old user account...


Section "Troubleshooting" ...Comment faire ?

Un chapitre "Troubleshooting" dans ma documentation ? Reprise sur erreur avez-vous dit ?...
 C'est le principe n° 3  du minimalisme : "Support error recognition and recovery". Il s'agit d'aider l'utilisateur à retomber sur ses pieds, alors qu'il a fait une erreur.
Pour faciliter le retour sur la bonne voie, le rédacteur a deux options: 
  •  donner la résolution du problème exactement là où a pu se déclencher l'erreur, c'est-à-dire dans la procédure,
  • créer une section "Résoudre les problèmes".
Intervenir directement dans la procédure répond exactement à la recommandation de Dr. van der Meij : 
"Provide error information when actions are error-prone or when correction is difficult"
Ce principe de la correction d'erreur est complété par Dr. JoAnn Hackos, (webinaire du 27.08.2014). Il s'agit d'aider les utilisateurs à détecter, définir, diagnostiquer et corriger les problèmes.

L'essentiel est d'indiquer : 
  • la cause du problème
  • le moyen de résoudre le problème
A ne pas négliger non plus : donner -à l'utilisateur- la possibilité de trouver rapidement le chapitre "Troubleshooting" !

 "Troubleshooting" : le modèle________  

Le comité DITA OASIS a mis au point, dans sa version 1.3, le modèle de rubrique "Troubleshooting".  Aucune raison de ne pas s'en inspirer !

En prenant l'exemple de l'article du 3 juillet 2014 (Comité DITA OASIS), on va repérer les éléments de ladite rubrique : Title, Short Description, Condition/Situation, Cause, Remedy

Mise en pratique

Titre: System will not turn on

ShortDesc: Everything looks right, but the system still does not start

Condition/Situation: The system is plugged in, the power switch is on, but the system will not start.

Cause: The problem is usually due to power not being supplied to the system through the electrical outlet. Often, a circuit breaker has been tripped so that no power is available at the outlet.

If you don't not know how to reset circuit breakers, do not attempt ot fix this problem. Instead, find somebody who is qualified to do this for you.

1. Turn the system power switch to OFF
2. Reset  the breaker
3. Turn the system power switch on O

The system turns on.

VERSION OPTIMISEE________________________
On peut optimiser le contenu, tout en gardant la structure :

Titre : System will not start

Mini Desc : If the system does not start, it is probably due to the circuit breaker. It is recommended to have a qualified professional reset the circuit breaker.

Situation : The system is plugged in, the power switch is on, but the system will not start.

Cause : Power is not supplied to the system through the electrical outlet. A circuit breaker has probably been tripped that blocks power distribution.

Solution :
1. Make sure you have the necessary skills to reset the circuit breakers

2. Turn the system power switch to OFF
3. Reset  the breaker
3. Turn the system power switch on ON.



  •   En anglais, nous avons l'élément "Condition" qui, IMHO, peut porter, en français, à confusion. On serait tenté par une traduction littérale et cela mènerait inévitablement à de grosses bourdes. Il ne s'agit pas de donner les conditions pour que le système ne marche pas, mais bien de clarifier la SITUATION de blocage dans laquelle l'utilisateur se trouve.
  •  La version originale inclut un "Warning" qui s'avère inapproprié. Il n'y a pas de danger physique (ou, tout au moins, il n'est pas indiqué), donc pas d"AVERTISSEMENT". 
Rajouter des avertissements dans une rubrique "Troubleshooting" va mener vers le sac de noeuds dans lequel l'utilisateur ne retrouvera pas les instructions nécessaires à sa reprise sur erreur. 
L'information contenue dans cet avertissement peut trouver sa place dans une instruction et, comme démontré ci-dessus, dans la "Short Description".

Chaque rubrique  "Résolution des problèmes" s'insère  fort bien dans un chapitre "Résoudre les problèmes" qui, avec un titre parlant, facilite la recherche.

L'insertion d'une mini-rubrique "Problème ?" dans la procédure, sera détaillée dans un autre article du blog...


Poursuivre l'exercice ?

Venez en parler lors d'un prochain atelier  "Minimalisme : Créer l'information dont on a vraiment besoin" !