Carroll discusses minimalist learning design in magazine interview

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- The legendary Funnel of Nurnberg was said to make people wise very quickly when the right knowledge was poured in — a philosophy that designers continue to apply whenever they over-structure information designs. However, according to Jack Carroll, Edward M. Frymoyer Professor at Penn State’s College of Information Sciences and Technology (IST), and the author of a landmark book on minimalist design, designers should prescribe less, and enable users to think and do more with new technologies.

“That is how you get the best user experience.” said Carroll, whose book, “The Nurnberg Funnel: Designing Minimalist Instruction for Practical Computer Skill,” was published in 1990.

“The Nurnberg Funnel” presents the "minimalist" approach to instructional design -- its origins in the study of people's learning problems with computer systems, its foundations in the psychology of learning and problem solving and its application in a variety of case studies. A follow-up book, “Minimalism beyond the Nurnberg funnel,” which was published in 1998, presents 14 major contributions from various experts on the theory and practice of minimalism. 

Carroll talked about the concept of minimalism to facilitate learning, and his books’ influence on technical communicators and their work with users and product documentation, in the February 2013 edition of STC intercom: The Magazine for the Society for Technical Communication.

The interview, “Minimalism Revisited,” was conducted with STC Vice President Nicky Bleiel and can be read at A podcast of the interview can be accessed at

Carroll, who has a doctorate in experimental psychology from Columbia University, is  co-director (with Mary Beth Rosson) of the College of IST's Laboratory for Computer Supported Collaboration and Learning. He is also the director of Penn State's Center for Human-Computer Interaction. Until August 2003, Carroll was a professor in computer science at Virginia Tech. He was also director of Virginia Tech's Center for Human-Computer Interaction, and had secondary appointments as professor of teaching and learning, and psychology. Prior to that, he worked at the IBM Thomas J. Watson Research Center (1976-1994), where he managed the renowned User Interface Institute.

When Carroll started working for IBM in the 1970s, he said, the company was focused on making hardware and software products that were designed to support computing and informational professionals.

“In those days, no one touched a computer who was not already a professional or hobbyist,” he said.

In the early '80s, Carroll said, IBM started expanding into new markets and reaching out to much broader user groups. People were increasingly told they had to use computers at work, which led to a “wave after wave of new kinds of users and learners.”

“Users, usability, the whole HCI (human computer interaction) transformation were set loose at IBM,” he told Bleiel during the interview. “I’ve often thought the decade of the ’80s was the decade of the new user, because there was such a vast expansion.”

While computer products had become more widespread and accessible, Carroll said, this entailed the challenge of new users being unacquainted with new technologies. He says that one of the obstacles for users in gaining competencies with the technologies was that the products were designed to be comprehensive rather than focused on users’ needs.

Carroll says that he named his book “The Nurnberg Funnel” to “mock the idea that learning is that simple.” In his interview with Bleile, he said that he supports the concept of an “active learner,” meaning that people need to act, they need to be engaged and that they need to think in order to learn.“

There are a number of misconceptions about minimalism, Carroll said, particularly that minimalism just means brevity. Rather than shortchanging learners out of information, a minimalist approach to instructional design is intended to streamline instruction to enable the learning process not minimize the volume of information that is available to learners.

“Brevity is not the goal,” Carroll said. “The goal is to help people learn.”

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Last Updated May 23, 2013