Much Ado About Minimalism

Or perhaps that title should be Little Ado about Minimalism?

For those of us in the content creation world, we’ve been hearing and dealing with minimalism for years now.  We all know we should do it, but what gets in the way of actually doing it?

Minimalist View of Minimalism

For the few who may not know, minimalism is writing less. Period.

Okay, that may not be enough.  To extend this, minimalism tells us to write just enough to satisfy the consumer of that content and nothing more.

Did you hear that part? NOTHING MORE.  That’s where we get tripped up the most.  Nothing more means we don’t describe every detail, every possible use case, or every corner case in our content.

The other critical part to hear – Satisfy the customer.  That doesn’t mean satisfy your manager, or the marketing manager, or the engineer who wants every aspect of her creation in full detail.  It’s the customer that matters.

Know the Customer

If you ask the people you work with, most of them will feel they know who the customer is.  Most are right, in some shape or form.  But, to take the idea of minimalism to the extreme, minimize your customer.

That doesn’t mean a sci-fi shrinkray, that means understand your customers in the aggregate. Again, ignore the cornercases. Find the personas that match your most common customer.  Find out what they need. What do they come to your website for? What are they looking to gain out of taking your product training course?  Aggregate, and then simplify.  Find out the top tasks they need to complete.

Focus on Learning by Doing

Now that you feel you know your customer, and you know what they need to understand, the next step is  creating the right content.  The big issue here – stop lecturing them.  Whether you are writing training material or technical documentation, focus on the task they need to be able to repeat or adapt to their own needs.  Limit your content to that task, and just enough background information (lecturing) to understand how to do that task, and how to recover when errors occur (troubleshooting).

The End Result

So what do we have after all this? We have:

  • Significantly less content overall (covering the top tasks for your average customers)
  • Focused content on solving real-world needs
  • Improved findability when your important, user-focused content is no longer cluttered by extraneous material and corner-case details that the majority of your customers don’t need.

Is it perfect? No. Will there  be unhappy people, internal and external? Yes.  Will most of your customers be very happy? Most likely, yes, and that’s what we’re focused on here, getting our customers reading less and doing more.

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Providing Learning Resources at the Moment of Need

I admit… I am a Bob&Con groupie at this point.  But these two have great resources on understanding and applying learning resources at the ‘moment of need’.

In this short (7minute) video, they go over how a user is looking for information ‘at the moment of apply’… at the moment they are trying to do something and forgot or don’t know how.    This is a critical piece for performance support – the ability to give 2-3 click access to the information I need, when I need it, and most importantly, ONLY what I need (where knowledge in context joins minimalism).   Also critical in this approach is providing the deeper dive, so the learner has the option to delve deeper to find related information that can help them understand beyond the 3-click step by step detail (all enabled through intelligent content principles so the ‘brokered’ information is fed  to the user based on metadata).

I’ll be looking for ways to apply these principles to my own work.

In the meanwhile… watch…learn.. and you too can be a #bob&conGroupie

(and yeah, thinking the embedded video someone else created but I get to blog about.. .also slick).

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Putting Activities First in Instructional Design

This 6 minute video says it all.  

Rather than take the info info info then exercise approach to instructional design, the video makes the case of the alternate approach :

  1. What’s the goal?
  2. What allows the user/student to achieve that goal (what is the behavioral change required)?
  3. What activities/exercises get them to that change?
  4. What is the ‘bare bones‘ information do they need to understand to do the activities etc.

Emphasis here on bare bones as that leads directly into our need to focus on minimalism in our content. Say what you need to say, say it with as few words as possible, and more importantly, LEAVE OUT all the fluff, all the background, the history lessons, etc etc that are not necessary to understand how to do what you need to do to get the job done.

The video itself is clever as it covers the topic and: 

  • stays short
  • demonstrates its ideas by example
  • throws in a bit of humor to keep it engaging.

Anyway, thought it was fun and worth sharing.

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Resources on Instructional Design and Cultural Diversity

This has been a bee in my bonnet for a few months now. When we created educational resources online, we are hoping they will be useful to a global audience, but can we really achieve that without any extra effort on our part?


Whether the course is translated or not, how you write is critical to how it is understood by your non-English speaking target audience.  From simplified sentence structure, to avoidance of contractions and regional terminology, there is much you can do in an editorial sweep to improve the global usability of your content.


Most applicable to online course delivery is what expectations can you make on the student’s access tools, availability, and bandwidth. Providing the best educational content is of little help if the student can’t download the material in a timely manner over their slower Internet link, or if they can’t remain online for the duration of the course (and thus need an offline mode).

Assessment and Failure

This aspect of an online course can affect the end-user base, depending on the level of public vs private ability to ‘fail’ – that is, if quizzes and practice assessments are part of the course delivery, does the student get to take these practices privately, or will all results be available in public (within an online classroom, visible to the boss, etc).  The ability to practice and fail is critical to learning, but also culturally sensitive. A prospective student may bypass your online course if practice results (or any assessment results) become visible to peers, managers, etc.

User Interface and Presentation

Cultural issues within instructional design are most obvious in the areas of language use and user interface design.  Avoidance of gendered pronouns is the most obvious, but when developing online content, you must also consider any personas or avatars presented in the material, or in voice-overs. Whether it is the decision to use male or female, or present an avatar as an anthropomorphic animal, different cultures can reject such  presentations. This can also become an issue if you are using gamification principles within your on-line course. Zombies may be the rage in Western cultures, but the use of such can severely limit your global audience in some regions.

Questions to Ask

Inclusive Practices in Instructional Design has a good starting point on things to consider when developing courses for a diverse audience:

  • How do the learners view competition? Values placed on competition and collaboration are culturally bound.
  • What is the learners’ locus of control? Different cultures have different perspectives on the amount of control individuals have over happenings.
  • What are the learners’ preferred learning styles? A number of factors could influence people’s preferences, including culture, gender, age, and prior experience.
  • What are the learners’ cognitive styles? Some studies indicate that learners from different cultural groups may develop different cognitive styles. 
Inclusive Practices in Instructional Design  also has a long checklist for consideration in course development so go check it out in full (near the bottom of the paper).

Some other useful articles:

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Improving Knowledge Retention in eLearning

Improving Knowledge Retention in eLearning

A kind gnome pass this knowledge retention link to me (yeah, Ima gonna pay for that gnome comment!🙂

It’s worth a full read but the highlights on how we can use those retention ideas to improve our eLearning courses are:

Say it Again if You Want Me To Remember!

Repetition and Retention

Studies show that adaptive repetition aids in knowledge retention.  The gist of it is:

  1. Pretest – what do I already know?
  2. Adaptive Learning presentation – Show me only the gaps in my knowledge
  3. Test – What do I know now?
  4. Repeat step 2 – showing only my latest gaps in knowledge.

Lather, rinse, repeat.  The key of course, how do we keep it interesting on those repeat steps. This is where gaming theories come in.

Why am I Taking this Module Again??

Motivation and Retention

Ever wonder why you can sit through your favorite video game and play it again.. .and again.. and AGAIN? I mean come on, after the first two tries, you KNOW the flesh-eating zombie is popping out from behind that car wreck. No surprise there. But still, you shoot and shoot and…

..okay got distracted there…🙂  Anyway, the point being, It’s not the repetition that bothers us. We do that in other situations. It’s the motivation. What’s my reward for killing that zombie?  Well, eventually I’ll master Level 1 and get to Level 2, then Level 3, etc etc.

How’s that relate to mastering BGP?  Well, it’s all in the levels.  First prize goes to the commenter who can equate BGP peers to zombies!🙂  Seriously, though – we already separate our courses into lessons, our lessons into modules.

  • How would you change your module design if you thought about it as a level in a video game?
  • What’s the student get when they master level 1 (module1) – what have they learned? (Remember those learning objectives? They can’t be ‘Describe Route Reflectors”. They have to be more like “Redesign a Full-Mesh BGP Network using Route Reflectors”.  That is, apply it to what the need to do in the day job.)
  • Keep the module (level) engaging.  25-30 questions to master a module (or maybe a lesson?).

Beyond that though, how do we keep it interesting if we are pushing the student back through that Route Reflector material again and again? That’s where we bring in branching.

  1. Describe Route Reflectors -what are they, why use them, when do I start using them?  – toss in a procedure or two on how to configure. TEST!
  2. Next iteration, present what they didn’t understand – use examples this time. Maybe a video. TEST
  3. Another iteration – hopefully whittling down on what the student isn’t grasping – maybe reuse some of the concepts in step 1 with a part of the example in step 2.

Reuse portions of the content, presented in different ways.

Learning in the Now, Baby!

Instant Gratification

This one’s easy – instant feedback on an incorrect answer.  Imagine if that video game paused with a popup ‘Shoot Zombies in the HEAD if you want them to stay dead!”  A short description of what’s wrong with the student’s answer, and then a link back into the course if they want to go back immediately to retake that part.

Um, Was that a Lucky Guess?

Emotion and Retention

This was the one that wasn’t obvious to me.  If you ask me ‘how confident am I on my answer’, that actually helps trigger a better memory retention of the content than if you leave out that touchy-feely question.  The website does a good job of going into the Cognitive Psychology involved, but the gist is – Every question is linked with this confidence factor.   If your confidence is high and you get the question right, you’ve mastered it. If your confidence is low, and you get the question right – lucky guess and you need to go through that one again.

All in all, some nice ways we can improve retention on our eLearning courses.  Question for the commenters – how do we integrate this not only into our work processes, but our thought processes?  :-)

Related Links

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Demonstrating the power of EPUB3 for Interactive Elearning

You’ll have to download the ereader, then grab the EPUB3 Unleashed ebook.

It’s worth clicking through the whole demo, as it shows a lot of options that become available in epub3.  What’s exciting from an elearning and interactive enhanced ebook perspective includes:
  • text-linked audio
  • animation
  • interaction
  • quizzes (True/false, sequencing, multiple choice, drag and drop, etc).

Will be great to see some of this functionality showing up in digital content to move us all beyond the  print-based econtent we have available today.

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Another Interesting Take on the Mobile User (and content assumptions)

From Myths of the Mobile Context , Mobile users:

  • Expect as good an experience as the desktop
  • May be looking for that quick snippet, but many times are looking for the full content. Plan accordingly.
  • Don’t randomly remove content – keep the core content available on Mobile (tho need to reconsider navigation etc for smaller screen).
  • Extra clicks to get to content is okay, so long as it is leading to the right direction. Make decisions obvious.
  • Serve the same content to all devices, but optimize experience for the device capabilities
  • Apply Minimalist principles to ALL your content. Will vastly improve user experience, no matter how it’s accessed.
  • Enhance content with metadata (helps drive the right styles to the right platforms)
  • Don’t repeat print constraints for all devices. Print will become the minority platform of the future!

Futher reading:

Responsive Web Design

Mobile First!

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Mobile First as a Content Strategy


This is is being presented at this year’s DevLearn 2011 conference:

Content Strategy Across Connected Devices 

Interesting highlights:

  • Content developers’ goal – create an engaging educational experience for screens that are convenient, not simply converting existing content to smaller screens. Converting existing elearning content to mobile format is a lesson in futility.
  • Design training content for mobile first, not desktop or print.
  • Content development should become Agile – continuous experimentation and improvement.
  • Design upfront what your smallest content component will be (and optimise for that in your CMS, processes, and UI deliverables)
  • Users may experience different interactions/layouts based on mobile device, but learning objectives remain consistent.
  • Users will move between mobile, tablet, desktop. Plan for this constant shifting and ensure learning objectves are met even when functionality is missing (e.g. flash on iPad).
  • Create default reference design for each of the device types you’ll support and know the limitations of each.
  • Develop content for the chunk, not the slide.

Well worth reading in full!


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Modifying Your Content based on Web Analytics

Rick Allen has an excellent article up on this topic. You wanna read the full thing, but highlights I especially enjoyed include:

  • Search terms – going beyond the terms that link to your content, what other related search terms are there out there that you are missing out on.  One client  insisted on using their product name everywhere to try to build out their brand. Great idea, but the search terms show customers weren’t searching for their specific product name, they were searching on the underlying technology (video conferencing). By not associating that important keyword with their product, the company was missing out on the vast majority of search referrals. Lost opportunity for sure.
  • When your content works and when it doesn’t – using metrics like time on page etc, can give an indication of when your content is useful (longer on-page times) and when it’s skimmed and ignored.
  • Prioritizing content updates – This one I’ve done myself. Web analytics clearly showed the most important topics our customers were going to again and again. Those topics went through a major overhaul to ensure they were clearly written, relevant to the customer base, and accurate.
There’s a ton more in the article so go read the original for sure! And peruse the related slideshare presentation from CS Forum 2012.
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