May 2015
By Leah Guren

Leah Guren is the owner/operator of Cow TC. She has been active in the field of technical communication since 1980 as a writer, manager, Help author, and usability consultant. She now devotes her time to consulting and teaching courses and seminars in technical communication, primarily in Israel and Europe.



Pack less, provide more: What ultra-light travel has taught me about minimalism in documentation

I travel a lot; my clients are all over the world and I usually speak at several technical communication-related conferences each year. My business – coupled with my natural penchant for minimalism – has led me to become a seasoned road warrior.

My friends call me “The Travel Ninja.” I can manage a three-city, ten-day trip with my ultra-slim carry-on spinner by Tripp. Packing everything I need into such a small case is challenging, but I do it to avoid the problems of over-packing:

  • Checked luggage can be lost or damaged.
  • You waste time at the airport checking and retrieving it.
  • Getting to and from the airport is more difficult.
  • You are physically and metaphorically weighted down with unneeded possessions.

I've learned that ultra-light travel provides a better travel experience, just as minimalist documentation provides better usability.

Here are my favorite ultra-light travel tips and their application to documentation:

  1. Reuse, reuse, reuse. Never pack a garment that can only be worn once. Everything needs to do double (if not triple) duty. Never bring multiple versions of the same functional item (watches, raincoats, etc.). Pick top quality items that will hold up well to multiple demands. For example, my Caribou compression socks are comfortable enough to use as a mid-weight walking sock. 

    For documentation: think about the multi-use value of a piece of information. A well-designed graphic, for example, can be useful in multiple topics.
  2. Keep it bland and universal. I tend to wear a lot of black, white, and gray. I then pick one highlight color to add some life and variety to outfits. The advantage is that everything goes with everything and is always appropriate wherever I travel. 

    For documentation: always select a design and style that is universally appealing (or at least inoffensive) and will not cause problems during localization.
  3. Layer. Rather than a heavy coat or thick sweater, pack thin items that can be layered. You’ll be just as warm and comfortable, but won’t fill your luggage with one bulky item of limited use. 

    For documentation: don’t try to dump all information onto the user at once. Layer it with techniques like DHTML, allowing the user to reveal information as needed.
  4. Make do without. There are many things that you can live without for a few days. Do you really need three different face creams? Will you die without slippers? Of course not! And remember that special equipment (for example a tennis racquet), can be borrowed or rented. 

    For documentation: get rid of elements that we can live without (for example, Conventions Used, lists of figures, and other dated elements that don’t really justify their weight). For some content, you can reference users to external (“borrowed”) sources.
  5. If you need it, make it small. Don't bring that full-sized bottle of vitamins when you only need one week's amount. If an item can be compressed when not used, even better. For example, I take an empty Platypus water bottle in my shoulder bag. The water bottle can hold 0.5 liters but when empty, it folds flat.

    For documentation: think of ways that you can compress content to get it out of the way; for example, DHTML or graphics that can compress to a small icon when clicked. And if you need to define a term or explain a concept, do so briefly.
  6. Wash as you go. Rather than carry clean garments for each day, plan to reuse items. This means that while you are packing and carrying less, you also need to do laundry in small batches, which keeps things manageable.
    For documentation: find ways to fix problems, errata, and user complaints on a regular basis, rather than letting them build up for the next big documentation release.
  7. Don’t skimp on security. There are some items that are important for health and safety, even if you never need them. This includes emergency medication, a security device for hotel room doors, and your critical documents. 

    For documentation: make sure that your users can find the critical info, such as your company contact info, quickly. Include safety and security measures on your website and in all of your content.
  8. Don’t collect more junk along the way. There is nothing like traveling ultra-light to cure you of a shopping addiction! I follow a zero sum rule: if I bring a small gift for my client or host, I can then purchase one tiny thing as a memento. 

    For documentation: documents that are edited by committee often pick up a lot of “souvenirs” (content that the reviewer thinks “must” be included). If you are not careful, your documents will become weighted down with all this clutter.

Have a good ultra-light travel story or a documentation minimalism tip? I’d love to hear from you.

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#1 Marie-L. flacke wrote at Mon, May 25 answer homepage

IMHO, while waiting at the airport, you should read "Minimalism beyond the Nurnberg Funnel" (John Carroll and Hans van der Meij). This will help you understand (at last!) what minimalism is...