Less is Less


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Mies van der Rohe's rallying cry of minimalism in modern architecture was "Less is more."

Less is not a bad thing. In fact, for those creating the reusable multilingual user-oriented content of today's websites and structuring the writing of today's corporate documents, the cry should be "Less is less." Because minimalism is fundamentally about usability of content; when it is successful, minimalism means less to read and less time spent by the user to get your message and act on your goals.

Whether your content is aimed at selling something or teaching something, minimalism is about getting the job done better by using the latest research in cognitive psychology and theories of instructional and interaction design.

Minimalism as a method for creating more usable content grew out of a study at IBM in the 1980s led by John Carroll. During that decade IBM had been pursuing the idea that all of the company's documentation should be task-oriented. People read to do, not to learn. John Dewey's pragmatic action method of education in the 1920s had focused on learning by doing.

IBM found, as has been known by some for centuries, that learning is easier when content is broken up into small action-oriented chunks. Similar research had been done in the early 1960s at Hughes Aircraft (the STOP system), the U.S.Navy (QRC method), and most well-known and still in wide use today, Information Mapping's extensive research into structured writing. All three of these stressed small chunks of modular text with accompanying graphic illustrations.

Small is really beautiful when it comes to online content. Potential customers surfing the web have no patience whatsoever. They are always only one click away from leaving your website. When content is concise and action oriented, they might click and buy instead of clicking goodbye.

So give them less. (To get inside the mind of the less is less user, read Steve Krug's great book on usability, "Don't Make Me Think!")

If you succeed, less may lead to more: more sales, more profit, more knowledge. On the downside, it may cost you more too. One of the quick takeaways from minimalism is the simple idea of getting rid of all the superfluous verbiage. Some writers take this to mean cut the content and run. The nasty secret is that writing tight informative modular content is hard. You need smart well-paid writers who know how to do it, or you need to train your existing writing teams in these new methodologies. And you may actually need more content to cover all the specific action-oriented cases. But there is a saving grace called content reuse.

Every major writing tool now has a path to XML, which leverages small modular chunks of content for a phenomenal return on investment. It's called single-sourcing your content. First, content management systems can serve a content component through multiple publication channels--print, web, online help, mobile, etc. Second, the cleverest chunks are written in a context-independent way that makes them reusable in many different places. Finally, reusable chunks need to be translated only once. If your content is reaching an international audience, your savings are directly proportional to the number of language markets you are reaching.

Where do you go for training in reusable, task-oriented, single-source, topic-based, minimalist content component creation? The leading spokesmen for modular structured writing today are all women, JoAnn Hackos (www.comtech-serv.com), Ruth Clark (www.clarktraining.com), Ann Rockley (www.rockley.com), and Kay Ethier (www.travelthepath.com). They run workshops and conferences all over the world teaching the new modular content creation. They will teach you about simplified writing, controlled vocabularies, writing for reuse, and writing for translation.

What tools do you need? The specific form of XML being added to writing tools is DITA (Darwin Information Typing Architecture). DITA was the creation of IBM and its task-oriented minimalist thinkers, but it is now an open-source standard (www.DITA.XML.org). As a result, leading editor tools like PTC Arbortext, Adobe FrameMaker, and JustSystems XmetaL all have excellent DITA support. Structured writing pioneer Information Mapping has created ContentMapper, a Word plug-in to author in DITA. Translation management systems like Idiom World Server were early to provide DITA support. A comprehensive listing of over 50 DITA tools is available at DITA Users (www.ditausers.org), a membership organization that provides online training in structured writing for those who can't get to the major conferences and workshops.

So what would van der Rohe and his fellow Bauhaus architects make of the axiom Less is more today in the new field of information architecture? Less investment. More return.


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