Creating Minimalist Instruction

John M. Carroll


The early 1980s were disruptive for computing. In many countries, the set of persons who regularly used computing expanded rapidly from a tiny and homogeneous set of data processing professionals to include nearly everyone. The dawn of the “new user” entrained challenges for training and instructional design: the economics of smaller systems ruled out vendor-provided, face-to-face training, which was succeeded by the paradigm of self-instruction. Our group at IBM’s Watson Research Center was in the cross hairs of this challenge: IBM wanted to expand office systems toward microcomputer platforms, and to enter the personal computing business. Our initial studies focused on office workers using standard self-instruction materials to learn these new systems. We identified key problems in self-instruction, and created alternative designs, such as the Minimal Manual and the Training Wheels Displaywriter, to address them. Our “minimalist” designs sought to leverage user initiative and prior knowledge, instead of controlling it through warnings and ordered steps. It emphasized that users typically bring much expertise and insight to this learning, for example, knowledge about the task domain, and that such knowledge could be a resource to instructional designers. Minimalism leveraged episodes of error recognition, diagnosis, and recovery, instead of attempting to merely forestall error. It framed troubleshooting and recovery as learning opportunities instead of as aberrations.

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