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NOTE: This is the abstract only. The complete text is under embargo until after the SIGDOC 98, Conference in Quebec City, Quebec, Canada, September 24-26, 1998. SIGDOC is the Special Interest Group on Systems Documentation of the Association for Computing Machinery.

The Zen of Minimalism:
Designing a Top-of-Class Manual for Beginners and Advanced Users

Carl Stieren

Simware, Inc.

2 Gurdwara Rd.

Ottawa, Ontario K2E 1A2 Canada



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. The books were Access for Windows 95 for Dummies, Mastering Microsoft Access for Windows 95, Third Edition, and Microsoft Access for Windows 95 Step by Step. In the first round of tests (Test 1), advanced users were fastest with the minimalist book Microsoft Access for Windows 95 Step by Step. The beginners were fastest with the book that came second on the minimalism scale, Mastering Microsoft Access. Then I conducted a second round of tests (Test 2) with changes to the documentation. I added three missing chunks of descriptive material and wrote complete sets of procedure steps for three difficult subtasks. After these changes, beginners and advanced users completed the tasks in two-thirds the time. Now the beginners and advanced users performed best with the minimalist book (Step by Step), and the books in second and third place for both groups were the same.

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DOC 98-09/98 Quebec City, Quebec, Canada.

1998 ACM