60.2, May 2013

The Minimalist Approach to Online Instructional Videos

Roger A. Grice, Audrey G. Bennett, Janice W. Fernheimer, Cheryl Geisler, Robert Krull, Raymond A. Lutzky, Matthew G.J. Rolph, Patricia Search, and James P. Zappen


Purpose: The instructional project described in this article explores a model for re-conceptualizing a form of short video instruction manual termed here as the “Web app video.” The goal is to determine whether explicit instruction in minimalism can help students (and practitioners) apply such principles and heuristics to the genre of Web app videos and aid in invention within emergent documentation scenarios.

Method: An instructional method was used in this study, specifically the introduction of minimalist documentation concepts and heuristics to instructional video production. This study compares assessment rubrics completed by students as pre- and post-test assessment data, though the success of the instructional method is not dependent upon these results.

Results: After working with minimalism heuristics, student-produced videos showed greater attention to imperative mood language, task-orientation, and error representation than existing videos for Web applications. Though student-produced videos lacked production polish, they showed evidence of minimalist strategies.

Conclusions: Minimalist documentation strategies can be successfully taught and applied to short videos designed to entertain, encourage, inform, and instruct potential users while enabling them to engage the Web application with more knowledge.

Keywords: instruction manual, minimalism, multimedia, video, user documentation

Practitioner's Takeaway

  • The documentation of small Web applications often includes short introductory videos designed to promote and explain the service.
  • These “Web app videos” do not always enable potential users to understand the tasks they may encounter, though too often these videos stand as the primary documentation.
  • The introduction of minimalist heuristics offers task-based, condensed instructional elements that also represent possible errors.
  • The classroom activity presented here shows the potential for increased development in minimalist instruction, particularly in helping technical communication students respond to new documentation situations.


The number of small, Web browser-based and mobile phone-based applications increases by the day. Rough estimates place the number of iPhone apps at 600,000 and the number of Android apps at about half a million, not counting the thousands of Web-based apps that can be operated through tablet-, laptop-, and desktop-run Web browsers (Rowinski, 2011). Most app development teams (or individuals) do not create traditional forms of user documentation, like a user manual—or even a quick start guide—because of two main constraints. First, the time and effort used to produce the documentation would likely outmatch the time and effort used to produce the app itself. Though there is no standard guideline for app development, some have reported that the development process can occur in as little as a week (iPhone SDK, 2009). Second, apps are not often built to do a wide range of complex tasks, but are instead created to corral a few related tasks, thereby eliminating the need for a complete manual that covers a broad range of technical details and configurations. Longer and more complete forms of user documentation, like the owner’s manual or user manual, have shown to be less popular in these app projects, and in their place we see a rise in hybrid forms of documentation. Specifically, a hybrid form of video—neither solely instructional nor promotional—has emerged as a method by which users are introduced to new Web app products.

These hybrid video forms have surfaced in much the same way that new forms of online needs-based instructions, such as message boards, wikis, and interactive FAQ pages, have grown in popularity. Selber (2010) has recognized these trends within ad hoc instruction sets, noting that they “have become a fixture and a focus of online participatory culture, which illuminates the significance of technical communication to an ever-widening audience of authors and users” (p. 98). It only requires a quick browse through a few Web apps to see that the abovementioned forms are widely used. For example, Trapster (trapster.com), a phone app that lets users know of police and red-light cameras, includes an FAQ page, a short video introduction, and a messageboard, relying on user feedback for much of the product information. Doodle (doodle.com), an app that helps users schedule events among large groups of people, offers an introduction video, a FAQ page and several “help” pages. Backpack (backpackit.com), an app that organizes meeting and group information through a notebook-system of Websites, uses an introductory video, a series of how-to videos, a FAQ page, and a messageboard. In much the same way that user-sourced messageboards do not fit more traditional conceptions of technical documentation, the video forms created as the general introduction to each of these apps are likewise novel.

Typically, these videos introduce the potential user to the Web app, illustrate what the app is able to accomplish, explain the primary ways in which the app functions, and (hopefully) energize the potential user to become an actual user. Instead of a straightforward instruction set video, these hybrid videos function as a quick how-to and a form of promotional material, often delivering information about the app’s functions in an entertaining way. Likewise, these videos do not fit neatly into the three conceptual models of instruction sets that Selber identifies—self-contained, embedded, or open. Self-contained sets are created by developers as fixed content that includes all of the instructions necessary for completing a task, embedded instructions are user-created and can take the shape of the abovementioned screencast videos or messageboards, and open models are mutable forms of documentation, like the abovementioned wiki pages. These introductory videos fit a slightly different model. Like a self-contained manual, they are produced or contracted by the content producers, but unlike most instruction sets, they primarily serve as starting points that generate enthusiasm on the part of potential users who may already be tech-savvy enough to operate many of the app’s functions. After all, most apps are not meant as replacements for feature-rich software, but intended to be small tools designed to accomplish only a few tasks. Similarly, these videos are not intended as complete sources of information, but enabling introductions to intentionally limited applications.

In many cases, these hybrid video forms are neither particularly detailed nor as useful as “manuals,” that is, as documents that directly aid users in performing tasks they wish to complete. A typical video focuses on “features” rather than tasks, fails to enable guided exploration once users have signed up for the app, and does not minimize ambiguity through the use of words and images. It can be said that these hybrid videos, then, are not particularly good as instruction manuals, and I hazard that most technical communicators would agree. However, they share several features of minimalist documentation, as described by Carroll and Van der Meij, aside from their relatively brief playing time, and, as I argue in this essay, would benefit from a more complete integration of minimalist documentation concepts in the video production process. Here I seek to answer the questions: 1) are students able to apply minimal principles and heuristics in the assessment and production of Web app videos, and 2) does such instruction aid students in adapting instruction manual language to novel technical documentation situations? Though the second research question was less precisely measured during this project, I believe both questions are answered in the affirmative. This essay outlines a procedure for teaching the minimalist Web app video manual and focusing on task orientation, while retaining the video’s marketing features. I explain the changing genre of instruction manuals, the ways in which Web app video manuals could be improved, how minimalism plays a role in this improvement, and how I have taught a minimal video manual project in technical communication courses.

Web App Video Manuals

In suggesting that minimal video manuals constitute an emerging form of documentation, I am also suggesting that the manual—as a genre—is changing. Such a claim should come as no surprise to those familiar with rhetorical notions of genre that suggest they are temporarily stable understandings of continuously variable forms. Miller’s claims about genre in 1984 initiated rhetorical genre studies (RGS) for many technical communicators, especially her claim that “Genres change, evolve, and decay: the number of genres current in any society is indeterminate and depends upon the complexity and diversity of the society” (p.163). For Miller, and for many others who have expanded on her claims, such as Bazerman (1988), Russell (1997), and Devitt (2004), genre refers to a level of familiar traits identified through the social context that creates them and activities they enable. The instruction manual, as a longer, written form of user documentation, emerged to accommodate an audience that wanted a direct way to engage a product and/or process. Selber has noted that the Web has been instrumental in incubating new genres, where new rhetorical situations have facilitated novel responses. He claims that emerging rhetorical engagements on the Web “both stabilize and destabilize—articulate and rearticulate—the genres of technical communication (Selber, 2010, p. 96). The manual, as one of the most common technical communication genres, has been slowly mutating in response to a wide array of influences, sometimes emerging as a user-created wiki, sometimes as an ad hoc messageboard with threads of responses, and at other times as a short video designed to encourage and enable product use. What we are seeing in the Web app video is a relatively new form, one that functions as a quick-start guide, not a complete manual, and often promotes the product while it introduces it.

Larger video instruction manuals can involve a great amount of detail, numerous chapters, clear visuals, and direct, imperative language, while also providing a wealth of dynamic visual information—mirroring long-form instruction manuals. Durack (2003) locates the post-WW2 value in technical writing as built upon a need for clear, precise technical manuals, quoting Marschalk’s claims that without good technical manuals, the “vast assortment of machinery in industry . . . would haltingly grind to a general slowdown or stop” (p. 572). Here, communicators focused on creating easily understood, standardized texts so that users could undertake safe, appropriate actions once the corresponding situations arose. Most technical communication textbooks available today mirror these concerns in their own chapters on the design, writing, and production of what are referred to as instruction, user, or technical manuals. However, few texts refer to video user manuals beyond a passing reference. In order to find real-world instances of detailed video manuals, we do not have to look far. For example, GMC’s owner’s manual videos provide specific steps to control a sub-set of tasks, with distinct videos for each unique set (2010). In contrast to this complex manual, Web app videos are notably shorter and include less information. The video introducing Dropbox (dropbox.com), a cloud storage service, is casual in tone, includes a general overview of the app, offers a cheerful, hypothetical scenario in which the app is used, and encourages viewers to engage with the service, all within a two-minute playing time. While this video shares some features in common with the GMC video (employing a stand-in for the user, describing overall goals, and offering a real scenario), many other aspects of Dropbox’s video do not fit the model given in most technical communication textbooks.

Web app videos also share similarities with the form of manual often called the quick-start guide or the “streamlined step” procedure manual. Not intended to support an entire procedure, these manuals instead introduce the confident user to basic functions or a specific process, or help a user set up a hardware or software system. In a study of help systems, Farkas (1999) explains the distinction between the longer form manual and streamlined step procedures. Streamlined procedures often feature: 1) brief steps, 2) simple formatting, 3) a stronger focus on imperative verbs, 4) little preceding information, and 5) hypertext links to “layer” the information (p. 45). Amazon.com’s guide for the 6 inch Kindle offers a good example of a streamlined manual, as it focuses on the steps required to get “around,” “connected,” “registered,” and how to buy a book—the elementary functions a user would want to understand about the device. The visuals are simple, specific steps are stated directly (leading with the imperative verb and foregoing extraneous detail), and users are directed to more information in the Kindle User’s Guide, also located on the device. However, Web app videos are often not as specific, direct, or “linked” to other forms of information as the quick-start guide. In the Web app video, we have a form derived from the user manual, but less detailed, more casual, and likely less effective in helping users complete new tasks.

Watching to Learn to Do

The Web app video manuals we see when encountering new apps do not make particularly precise user manuals, but do they need to be particularly precise? One might ask, and rightly so, “since Web app videos fulfill several roles—both informational and promotional—why would we also expect them to function as useful user manuals?” Certainly, this is a fair question, but a fair response could focus on the lack of additional documentation offered by many Web apps. While no substantial study has counted the forms of documentation provided by Web apps, most provide a FAQ page or crowdsourced documentation in lieu of a manual. Workitywork (workitywork.com), a real-time workplace enhancement site, offers only a short video and a seven-item FAQ list. Cozi (cozi.com), an online organizer and calendar, includes a short video, help items such as “Features” and “Ways to Use” the site, and provides a 10-item FAQ list. The typical amount of user documentation falls somewhere in-between these two examples, with some re-directing help toward an email system or user- and expert-populated messageboard or wiki. Many Web apps do not provide much support documentation—interactive, user-generated, or otherwise—but instead rely on FAQ pages and introductory videos. It stands to reason that while these videos currently fulfill two roles, informational and promotional, they could also offer task-oriented support.

Unsurprisingly, many current Web app videos do not make very useful manuals. If we use Redish’s advice in “Reading to Learn to Do” (1989) on what a good tutorial should accomplish, we understand that language that serves “doing” tasks should help users 1) “Gain a basic understanding of the concepts and structures,” 2) “Become comfortable […] so that they will want to continue to use it and be satisfied with it,” 3) “Be able to perform basic, relevant tasks,” and 4) “Transfer what they have learned from the examples in the tutorial to other situations that were not directly covered in the tutorial (Redish, 1989, p. 290). Farkas adds that the vocabulary and level of detail should fit the audience and that the goals should be presented as achievable (p. 43-44). We could complement those characteristics with a host of concerns about visuals, warnings, “unambiguous” language, and appropriate timing between audio and video. Most app videos are excellent at showcasing some of what can be accomplished, with an energetic tone and bright visuals—however, most Web app videos are often less considerate of the user than they could (and should) be. Three main concerns arise here. Web app video documentation is often: 1) poor at guided exploration, 2) feature-oriented rather than task-oriented, or 3) ambiguous with regard to language use.

  1. Concerning guided exploration, while an app’s interface may also encourage investigation, the video is unlikely able to generate an immersive environment that leads the user through a process of exploration, discovery, and learning. Because Web app videos often dedicate a considerable amount of time convincing potential users that they should download or sign up, many reference only a small portion of the app’s interface or navigations.
  2. Regarding task-orientation, these videos often give users something more akin to a “tour” of what the app can do for them, and often tout the difference between free and paid versions (if applicable). While this level of detail may encourage users to sign up, it is unlikely that many use the video to understand step-by-step processes for accomplishing basic tasks. This “feature-focus” attends to the video’s first goal—the download or signup—but misses out on the opportunity to show and explain some of the fundamental tasks inherent in doing something with the app.
  3. Related to language use, few video manuals employ imperative mood, active verb, present tense language that helps users clearly identify specific instructions. Again, in the goal to provide potential users with the encouragement to download or sign up for an app, many Web app videos use casual language in describing what the app does and what activities it can be used to accomplish. Such language is neither inherently bad nor always a hindrance for user comprehension, but a lack of direction to key tasks, specific terminology, and clear video imagery avoids focus on the instructional aspects of these videos.

While some app videos are constrained by quick production timelines and a lack of resources, they need not avoid specific task-based instructions. The video instruction manual project that follows focuses upon task-based details and addresses the three main concerns with Web app videos referenced above. In the past, Carroll and Van der Meij (1996) have argued that coming changes in technology would bring “more opportunities for discovering minimalism and more challenges for applying minimalism than ever before,” and here I attempt to illustrate one such opportunity (p. 84). Not only do students appear able to implements concepts of minimalism to short video manuals, but also Web app documentation itself provides a useful location for instructing future professional writers how to compose in difficult or unorthodox workplace scenarios.


Minimal instruction emerged following the work of Carroll, a social scientist at IBM, most notably after he published The Minimal Manual (1987), The Nurnberg Funnel (1990), and the edited collection Minimalism beyond the Nurnberg Funnel (1998). Essentially, minimal documentation design is a heuristic that relies on psychology and empirical user-centered research to bring a smaller amount of task-based information to bear on a user’s processes. Though simple in concept, good minimalist design is challenging to implement because technical communicators need to conduct significant research in order to understand how users will engage, learn, and act with abbreviated instructions. In order to support discovery learning and exploratory impulses on the part of the user, minimalist documentation strategies suggest that professional writers learn what aspects of their software’s interface compel users, represent how the system functions, and contribute to an understanding of the software. Good minimalist design is not a complete solution to documentation, because the perspective of minimalist user design assumes that complete documentation is not necessarily a desirable thing (Carroll & Van der Meij, 1996, pp. 82-83). Such design principles empower users to learn while they encounter, not from an undirected “trial and error” method, but from an active engagement learning perspective where documentation design focuses on “supporting the user’s sense-making” processes (p. 83). The designer anticipates users’ assumptions and probable errors while accommodating and accelerating user experimentation and learning.

A complete review of studies that argue for the value of minimalist computer documentation would be beyond the scope of this article, thus it is perhaps sufficient to claim here that theories of minimalist documentation and support software are acknowledged as useful, if not broadly applicable. Instructional applications of minimal documentation have often been used but far less often described. Oatey and Cawood (1997) have explored the complications and possibilities in applying Carroll and Van der Meij’s minimal heuristics and Manning (1998) has focused on how minimalism can be applied beyond computer documentation. We have yet to see many descriptions of minimalist documentation in the era of Web (1993-present). However, in the case of the Web app video, we can employ minimalism in order to realize both industry-related and pedagogical goals.

Minimalist documentation concepts are appropriate for the Web app video described here, because they reduce documentation volume with a strategic method, not simply by excising language or running time. Minimal documentation concerns the “sense-making” processes of users and engages investigation without the commitment of a great deal of time or energy. These short videos continue to entertain potential users, while enabling them with the confidence and knowledge to explore. Appropriately, some Web app videos already show signs of minimal design, even if rather nascent ones. Even by illustrating features, they demonstrate a context of use, providing potential users with a level of immersive understanding. For example, Sococo (www.sococo.com/home.php), a Web app that provides virtual space for group work, offers a video illustrating much of the Web interface, providing potential users with site knowledge as well as details affording exploration.

Second, minimalism can be developed into effective and meaningful pedagogical adaptations, well beyond the obvious advantages of a “short” class project to a 10- or 15-week educational calendar. For one, minimalism is a set of heuristics, rather than set-in-stone principles, even if those heuristics can sometimes conflict with each other, as Oatey and Cawood have argued (1997, p. 265). Carroll and Van der Meij (1996) observe that minimalism acts as a flexible strategy that focuses on results that are appropriate to circumstances, arguing that “minimalism necessarily evolves with the context of information technology and information development practice” (p. 84). The adaptation of flexible heuristics to writing and composing scenarios assists technical communication students in recognizing the multiple ways they can adapt to complex situations. If one of the goals of technical communication education is to prepare students for a wide range of future knowledge work, then the conceptualization and production of a minimalist-focused Web app video certainly fits well.

The Web App Video Project

This Web app video manual project has been taught to three sections of undergraduate technical communication in a course comprised of students completing degrees in engineering or other STEM programs. This project was taught after an instruction manual assignment in which students developed their own print-based, step-by-step, task-oriented manuals, complete with original digital images, and worked with Adobe Photoshop and InDesign. As I have taught it, the video Web app project occurs in three main phases that correspond with readings concerning minimalism, several editing tutorials, and a number of project-planning assignments. In the first stage students identify and assess Web app videos, in the second phase they incorporate minimalism heuristics, and in the third phase they produce their own videos. Students are introduced to concept of Web app videos and asked to seek out additional examples. Then, they simultaneously research Web apps that do not yet feature videos and propose groups based upon those apps. While they self-organize, we examine the student-located examples of Web apps videos to identify similarities and differences. Though there is certainly a range of nuance within each of these categories, students have identified the following types of videos.

Identifying and Assessing Web App Videos

Fixed Videos.  Fixed videos often use live-action performance to narrate a site’s main features; these short videos are then posted on any number of video hosting sites like YouTube or Vimeo and embedded on an appropriate Web page. If live-action, they feature an actor who explains the app’s features. These videos achieve an extra dimension of interactivity, because the location of the video on the page can be determined in advance and the actor in the video can gesture to specific features. For example, if the video is embedded in the center of an app’s homepage, the actor can explain the features of the Web app that run along a top menu of the homepage while simultaneously pointing above her head to said menu. This kind of directed orientation is particularly effective in app interfaces that include a number of menu elements. For an excellent example, see the video for the now-deceased Google Wave (Figure 1).

Screen Shot 2013-06-14 at 3.35.20 PM

Cartoon/Papercraft/Whiteboard Videos.  Cartoon, papercraft, or whiteboard videos are actually three smaller types of video that share common attributes. All three involve either sequential drawing, stop-motion animation (a sequence of individual photographs), or live action video. “Cartoon” videos are not always hand-drawn cartoons, but the name references a range of unique graphic-heavy video demonstrations, typically featuring avatars for users. Papercraft videos include paper cutouts of users and various technologies (sometimes metaphoric) to show possible narratives and to guide users through a process. Stop-motion whiteboard videos function similarly, though use pen-on-whiteboard drawings of these same elements. In some cases, cartoon, papercraft, and whiteboard elements are used together, such as in many of CommonCraft’s videos (see Figure 2). The cartoon/papercraft/whiteboard video appears to function best when users desire to be taken through a complex process, or need to see a process expressed visually.

Screen Shot 2013-06-14 at 3.35.45 PMScreencast Videos.  Screencast videos are likely the most common form, as numerous software tutorials are offered as screencasts. These videos are facilitated by screencasting software that gives the user the ability to record what occurs on his/her screen (part or whole) and the corresponding audio. Many good screencasts include shots of the entire screen and close ups of specific actions and processes, as Morain and Swarts (2012) have explained in detail. Different shots and screen sizes can be edited together with common video-editing programs such as iMovie or Movie Maker, as well as with more professional programs (additional audio can similarly be joined and edited with these video elements). Examples of screencast videos are plentiful, though good examples can be found through well-known software companies’ Web sites, such as Adobe’s Design Suite tutorials (see Figure 3). Screencast videos are employed when users would like to be led through that procedure step-by-step. Few Web app videos are wholly comprised of screencasts, as they are often less entertaining, but can include screencast/screenshot elements.

Screen Shot 2013-06-14 at 3.37.14 PMIn order to determine the effectiveness of these Web app videos, I led brainstorm sessions with students in which we identified features that made the videos compelling, instructive, and useful. Though different videos offer unique qualities, we focused on elements that contributed to several main goals. The generalized outcomes of these sessions (from three different courses) produced our expectations for Web app videos. We found that videos should 1) inform potential users about the Web app’s purpose 2) through specific, task-based information, 3) while being entertaining, 4) thereby enabling users to explore the app, 5) all in less than three minutes. These main goals translated into attentiveness to several key areas and then into a generalized rubric, which students used to evaluate example videos.

The rubric I developed with students includes assessment criteria familiar to those who have evaluated long-form, text-based user manuals (see Table 1). This is likely because students recently completed that very project and because I led the discussion. We included a focus on language use, to encourage specificity and consistency, task-orientation, to focus on processes rather than features, action, to support users’ activities, guided exploration, to enable users to investigate the app after the video was complete, entertainment, to ensure that viewers would be enthusiastic about the app, correspondence, to encourage alignment between audio and video, production, to focus attention on clear and easy-to-understand audio and video, and finally, error representation, to support continued guided exploration. Of this group of assessment criteria, error representation may seem like an unusual focus, though Van der Meij and Carroll (1998) consider it a key feature in minimal manual design. In order to follow their heuristic to “prevent mistakes whenever possible,” they encourage manual designers to signal action, minimize jargon, provide error information (especially when corrections are difficult), and offer error information that “supports detection, diagnosis, and correction” (p. 35-41). We focused on detailing error information in order to to allow users to see the interface, become accustomed to navigation, focus on action, and enable guided exploration. Thus, the project asked students to include the explicit representation of error and recovery in their videos.

Table 1. One Student Group’s Dropbox Asessment

Assessment area Excellent (4) Good (3) Fair  (2)  Poor (1)
Language use: did the video employ relatively clear, imperative-mood language directing users to perform specific actions? x
Task orientation: how well did the video focus on tasks rather than features? x
Action: did the video focus on actions users could take with the Web app? x
Guided exploration: did the video offer enough information to allow users to explore the Web app? x
Entertainment: was the video entertaining, though not distracting? x
Correspondence: how well did the video match up with the audio so as to show direct relations? x
Production: was the video scalable and edited to include zooms and pans? Was the audio loud enough and easily understandable? x
Error representation: how well did the video show an error and how to recover from that error? x

Because students developed the rubric based on their (and my) understanding of user manuals, we then put it to use, assessing whether current Web app videos were helpful in instructing and entertaining users. Table 1 shows one such completed rubric for Dropbox’s app video.

The group felt that the video was visually impressive, with clearly represented images and crisp, easy-to-understand audio that matched the visual content. Likewise, the group was impressed at the whimsical stop-motion papercraft techniques used by the video developers and appreciated the attention to generating interest through the use of a short, hypothetical narrative. Though the video did not show precise screen captures from the Dropbox interface, the group felt that the main interface concerns were well represented by the visuals, including logos, progress bars, and folders. The group also felt that the rationale for why one might use Dropbox was explained clearly, though very little of the video was in imperative mood or concerned specific tasks. Language used in the video focused on features, though the video did not use much task-specific language. Finally, though the group felt that there was a little too much “whimsy” in the short video, they did believe that the hypothetical scenario explained in the video was helpful for potential users, especially as it primed them to understand how Dropbox functions. After this group of students employed the rubric to evaluate the video, they then created a Dropbox account and attempted to navigate the interface. Informal reporting of this experience proved positive, as students-turned-users explained they understood the general process of sharing files, though, as expected, they encountered some confusion when looking to upload files, share folders, and increase the capacity of their Dropbox account. Students recommended that some of the more entertaining details of the video could be removed and a simplified, task-based visual that shows to how to use the basic Dropbox interface (consisting of “Upload,” “New Folder,” and “Share a Folder”) could be included.

Aside from this group’s specific analysis, 16 other groups of students also evaluated app videos through three courses. The averages are represented in Table 2.

The somewhat loose nature of this assessment is intentional, in part because the Web app video is only now emerging as a recognizable form. Of course, because of our uncertainty over precisely what form these videos could take, we left the categories of assessment as broader areas for analysis rather than specific point values. For example, while students were not entirely convinced that the Dropbox video was as instructionally sound as it could have been, many thought it would be successful in encouraging users to sign up for the application. A lack of positive assessment in this rubric does not mean a video is unsuccessful. Here, evaluation is understood as both a measure for assisting students working on Web app videos and a means by which we can identify opportunities for creating more task-orientation and user-focus in emergent genres.

Incorporating Minimalist Heuristics

After groups were formed around specific Web apps, I introduced the rationale for, and details surrounding, minimalist documentation. We began with a short introduction to the history of minimalist documentation and several readings about minimalism, including Farkas and Williams’ “John Carroll’s The Nurnberg Funnel and Minimalist Documentation” (1990) and Carroll and Van der Meij’s “Ten Misconceptions about Minimalism” (1996) as well as excerpts from Van der Meij and Carroll’s “Principles and Heuristics for Designing Minimalist Instruction” (1998) and Van der Meij’s “Goal-Orientation, Goal-Setting, and Goal-Driven Behavior in Minimalist User Instructions” (2007). These readings established the basics for minimal documentation design and aided students in the construction of scripts and storyboards for the videos they created. Other readings included a short excerpt from Lanham’s The Economics of Attention (2006) to introduce the assumed division between content and form in attention strategies. I also asked students to read Chisnell’s highly readable “Usability Testing Demystified” (2009) from A List Apart magazine before planning the short, informal usability tests they would perform during the project.

Table 2. Student Assessments of Existing Web App Videos

Assessment area Mean Standard deviation
Language use 2.29 0.69
Task orientation 2.18 0.64
Action 3.35 0.53
Guided exploration 3.18 0.70
Entertainment 3.41 0.61
Correspondence 3.65 0.62
Production 3.59 0.71
Error representation 1.12 1.05

I focused groups’ attentions on Van der Meij and Carroll’s own minimalist documentation heuristics because they help technical communicators invent from basic tenets of minimalism rather than follow a set of explicit rules. These heuristics are adapted from Van der Meij and Carroll’s and an attempt to adhere to Lauer’s (1979) claims regarding heuristics, namely that they should be “neither a set of mechanical steps nor trial-and-error searches, [but] conscious operations that are useful in open-ended inquiry which seeks new meanings” (p. 268). From Lauer’s guidelines, these heuristics attempt to be transcendent and non-data-conditioned (“writers can use [them] in a wide variety of writing situations”) (p. 268), yet highly generative. That is, they attempt to engage “the writer in a range of operations that have been identified as triggers of insight: visualizing, analogizing, classifying, defining, rearranging, and dividing” (p. 269). The following heuristics were utilized as inventional and asked student to focus on:

  1. Relevant language (how can you use language to build users’ knowledge?)
  2. Task-orientation (how can you attend to the tasks users face?)
  3. Expedient action (how can you help users act quickly with the software?)
  4. Guided xxploration (how can you help users feel confident to discover?)
  5. Entertainment (how can you engage users’ excitement about their experience
  6. Correspondence (how can you use images and audio to help users’ comprehension?)
  7. Improvisation (how can you give users room to think with the software?)
  8. Error response (how can you support users’ error recognition and recovery?)

Perhaps themselves minimal, these heuristics helped focus students’ on the decisions necessary in order to develop user-directed ideas into useful minimal documentation.

Students made use of the abovementioned heuristics in several different ways. First, they focused on the main concept of minimalism in order to support “learner-directed activity and accomplishment” (Kearsley, 1994). Second, as students considered these heuristics, they developed a very informal usability test, working with three to four individuals not familiar with the Web app and performing a read-aloud exploration. One team member suggested and assisted the user through several tasks, while others recorded results and kept a running log. We performed usability testing, not to locate specific problems, but to better grasp possible user concerns with using the app. In his own usability testing in minimalist documentation scenarios, Johnson (1998) argues that “Involving actual users in design and development is one of the fundamental strengths of minimalism. Therefore, we [can] exploit this attribute of minimalism by taking our research questions to the intended users in the form of interviews, focus groups, and observation sessions” (p. 337). This limited research established a number of positions for the groups. They attempted to identify:

  1. What new users did not know (which helped teams prioritize user information)
  2. Where users experienced difficulty in completing tasks (which helped teams develop learning- and error-correction strategies)
  3. What question types were most prevalent (which helped teams develop content areas for their videos)
  4. What terminology was most confusing (which helped teams focus on specific language unique to the app)

This short usability research resulted in a more coherent picture of what users might desire from documentation and culminated in groups writing a short usability testing report that described the process of testing, the primary findings of the procedure, and the how the results were likely to affect documentation. Additionally, I asked students to write a short memo, focused on the imagined audience of the CEO of the Web app for which each group was creating a video. Asking students to write to this admittedly fictional audience allowed them to explain which heuristics they were employing, how those heuristics matched up to details they learned from their limited usability testing, and what video production elements in their storyboard resulted from the consideration of specific heuristics.

Producing Web App Videos

While a schedule for the Web app video teaching project can be found in Appendix 1, it is useful to comment briefly on this stage. Preceding this portion of the project, I offered several short tutorials and directed specific groups to more information on their chosen methods of production. This phase was also dominated by group work, with students providing updates as they planned for and produced their video during one 20-minute group conference. Students made updates to the storyboard as they progressed, using it as a way to articulate their ongoing and changing intentions. Likewise, I considered the storyboard as a way to foreground audio and video production issues. For recording sound and visuals, I stressed several lessons to avoid some common issues. Specifically, we covered:

  1. The general use of digital cameras and video recorders
  2. How to shoot video with sufficient lighting
  3. How to record audio without echo or background noise
  4. The general use of video- and audio-editing software (iMovie and Windows Live Movie Maker)
  5. The general use of screen-capture and screen-casting software (Sceenr and Jing)
  6. Common problems in converting file types

Students reported some difficulties within each of these areas, as many found that recorded audio included too much background noise and had to be re-recorded in a new environment, or that video was too dark and required increased lighting. For students recording audio and shooting video for the first time, these issues were expected. However, groups worked through or around these issues, as they likewise did when converting file formats in moving from hardware to audio- or video-editing software. Because this project was completed in a technical communication course and did not ask students to be well versed in either audio or video editing, we intentionally limited the value of these aspects to the abovementioned rubric (see Table 1). Further, the entire project was completed within about five weeks, so as to mirror the rapid development cycle of Web apps themselves; in some cases, students were not happy with their own audio and video production results.

Table 3. Student Assessments of Student-Produced Videos

Assessment area Mean Standard deviation
Language use 3.35 0.79
Task orientation 3.47 0.52
Guided exploration 3.29 0.59
Correspondence 3.12 0.70
Action 3.06 0.56
Entertainment 3.24 0.75
Production 3.06 0.66
Error representation 3.24 0.83


After groups had completed a full draft of their videos, they examined one other group’s video in detail, took notes, explored the Web app itself, and then completed the rubric for the video. While this evaluation was not completed for grading purposes, I believe it aided groups in self-evaluation and in receiving peer review on their soon-to-be-completed projects. Additionally, the result of 17 different group evaluations can be averaged to see which assessment categories showed improvement through an explicit attention to minimal heuristics. The averages are shown here in Table 3. Differences between student evaluation of professionally produced Web app videos (from Table 2), as well as statistical significance, are shown in Table 4.

Though it would be unfair to make too many conclusions from the aggregated results of these rubrics—specifically as the rubric was intended to generalize features of the admittedly emergent Web app video form—we can recognize several trends. First, the increase for imperative mood language was significant, which can be attributed to increased attention to instruction manual language in the course’s previous assignment (the instruction manual). Second, students recognized a significant degree of attention to task orientation. This focus may be due to the minimalist heuristics offered above, as several address aiding users though the representation of contextual, realizable tasks, often by showing specific actions. Error representation also scored quite well, though this feature was stressed during class, because showing potential users how to recover from an error aids in helping them recognize conventions of the interface and improvise while engaging with the application. Conversely, student work scored lowest on issues of production, something that can certainly be understood when we consider that these videos were conceived, shot, and edited within a five-week time frame, using only small digital cameras and inexpensive audio- and video-editing software.

Table 4. Comparison of Web App Videos Based on Student Assessment

Assessment area Difference in mean between student assessment of existing and student-produced Web app videos Statistical significant at p<.05?
Language use +1.06 p<.005*
Task orientation +1.29 p<.0001*
Guided exploration +0.11 p=.43
Correspondence -0.53 p=.06
Action -0.29 p=.17
Entertainment -0.17 p=.42
Production -0.53 p<.05*
Error Representation +2.12 p<.00005*

Screen Shot 2013-06-14 at 3.38.19 PMIt may also prove useful to examine one specific student-produced video in detail. While several videos are listed in Appendix 2, the video student developed for Grooveshark (www.grooveshark.com), a Web-based radio service, is generally representative. This group chose to work with a fixed video form, though incorporated some elements from screencast videos: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NS-vAV9Kz-E (see Figure 4). The fixed video approach is apparent in their use of a small, centrally-located video pane, which allowed the actor to address features of the site while the site’s background changed to reflect ongoing instructions. The group addressed “Language Use” through the consistent use of specific terms that are found on the Grooveshark interface and “Task Orientation” through the employment of task-specific language representing steps rather than features. The group did represent some site features, most notably explaining the paid version toward the end of the video. This video, perhaps more than others, also helps users explore the site. While not a true screencast, it makes use of many different images of the app’s interface, allowing users to see screens, menus, and functions before exploring the app. The entertainment levels and production values for the video are understandably lower than professionally produced videos, though the actor is upbeat and energetic, the audio is relatively clear, and the correspondence of audio and video is good, if not precise. Finally, this video addresses minimalism’s attention to error representation in a relatively subtle way. Through the use of a task that revises a user’s song selection—indicated by the language “If you don’t like the previous option, click the “Popular” link on the left side of the screen, under “Smart Playlists.” It brings up the songs other users play most often”—the Web app video helps users recognize multiple options for action within the task. Many of the student-produced videos share similar traits to those reflected in Tables 3 and 4, in that they feature more specific, task-oriented language and moments of error recovery, though are less entertaining and expertly produced than existing Web app videos.


As for my primary research question, whether students are able to apply minimal principles and heuristics in the assessment and production of Web app videos, the results from this course project suggest that, yes, students were able to develop Web app videos with increased attention to minimalism and task-orientation. Paying more attention to users’ needs resulted in videos with a higher attention to instruction-specific language, actions, and error representation. The results of the rubric comparisons show students believe users would be more prepared to take on specific tasks within the app after viewing the video than those who view many current Web app videos. However, these results must be tempered with the understanding that the rubric assessment method employed here was primarily meant as a method for students to understand their own use of minimalist heuristics and not as a defined, quantitative outcome. Further, though students completed roughly analogous pre-test surveys of Web app videos and post-test surveys of student-produced videos, the pre-text analysis included a wider range of videos than those students themselves completed for the course. That is, because students were completing videos while working in the same course, having similar discussions, and using a single evaluation rubric, the resultant videos would necessarily be more alike than those produced by numerous Web app developers. Yet, even though these findings are tentative, I believe minimalist documentation strategies offer unique methods for students to engage in emergent instructional genres, specifically short Web app videos.

As for the second research question, whether minimalist heuristics aid students in adapting to novel technical documentation situations, the answer is less easy to discern. Because students used heuristics rather than principles, though read about both, they were able to invent unique responses to the project. In reacting to a distinctive documentation situation, one that few students had heard of, much less were prepared to tackle, heuristics allowed them to respond to their specific situation. In creating the rubric, students applied assessment measures to their own, as well as other groups’, projects. Here I hoped to enable students to create new media documentation and understand the effects of the explicit use of minimalist documentation heuristics for short instructional videos. Throughout this project, I believe students grew to understand the value of heuristics in complex documentation situations, thus preparing them for future work. To some degree, this assumption proved valid, as recently a past student informed me that his first project for his new employer was to produce a Web app video. Though not as minimalist-specific as the videos we created during our class, the video he created employed principles we explored in the project. A draft of the video project can be found here:




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About the Author

Ehren Helmut Pflugfelder is an assistant professor at Oregon State University in the School of Writing, Literature, and Film. He teaches courses in technical, science, and business writing, new media theory and production, and writing pedagogy. His current research addresses the intersection of technical communication and mobility studies. Contact: ehren.pflugfelder@oregonstate.edu.

Manuscript received 15 March 2011; revised 18 March 2013; accepted 5 April 2013.


Appendix 1: Schedule for the Web App Video Teaching Project

The first stage of the Web app video project focused on students’ understanding of the video form itself. Most students were not familiar with the Web app video as a recognizable genre before looking for similarities between videos. Since I teach this project after students complete a more traditional instructional manual project, many of the readings and lessons that would correspond to instruction manuals are not shown here. Some of the smaller assignments within this project are designed to reinforce writing and design work students have experienced earlier in the semester (primarily work with messageboard posts, memos, and letters).


Week Classwork Readings Due
1 Students identify Web apps that do not have associated videos and post their findings to a class messageboard. After reading the posts, students vote on the three most interesting Web apps and then form groups around that app by writing short application letters to the students who suggested the most popular apps.In class, we work to identify similarities between videos and create a rubric for Web app videos. Groups then apply that rubric to an existing Web app video.Class time is also devoted to considering implications from Lanham’s The Economics of Attention and discussing basics from Farkas and Williams’ article. Short excerpt from the “Stuff and Fluff” chapter in Lanham’s The Economics of Attention (2006)Farkas and Williams’ “John Carroll’s The Nurnberg Funnel and Minimalist Documentation” (1990) Message board post on Web app without video and one existing Web app video.Vote on the three most interesting Web app projects.Short application letter to the group originator.
2 Class time spent discussing readings on minimalism and understanding basics to usability testing.Class time also given to groups’ basic usability testing. Chisnell’s “Usability Testing Demystified” (2009) http://www.alistapart.com/articles/usability-testing-demystified/Excerpt from Van der Meij’s “Goal-Orientation, Goal-Setting, and Goal-Driven Behavior in Minimalist User Instructions” (2007) Memo to instructor regarding some ideas the group has for their Web app video.
3 Class time spent discussing minimalist heuristics and misconceptions about minimalism.Introduction of storyboarding template and technology options (and caveats) for Web app video: digital photography, digital video, audio recording hardware, audio and video editing software.Short tutorial offered on video and audio editing software. Excerpt from Carroll and Van der Meij’s “Principles and Heuristics for Designing Minimalist Instruction” (1995)Carroll and Van der Meij’s “Ten Misconceptions about Minimalism” (1996) Short usability testing report addressing what groups have learned about users’ reactions to their Web app.Memo to imagined audience of the Web app’s CEO concerning the group’s plan for the Web app video.
4 Class time spent in group work and in conferences with instructor.Short tutorials offered ad hoc for specific group issues. Storyboard of Web app video.
5 Class time spent in group work.Assessment of Web app video drafts by groups using abovementioned rubric.Class time spent discussing drafts and rubric evaluations of drafts. Draft of Web app video for critique.Completed rubric for one draft and messageboard posts for all other drafts.
6 Class time spent preparing for the next project. Completed project due on flash drive, including memo addressing group self-assessment.


Appendix 2: Listing of Student-Produced Videos

These links correspond to student-produced Web app videos: