How to warn – a skill that has to be learnt

One of the most important objectives of an instruction manual is to ensure that the product is used safely. This comes as no great surprise, as no one wants to cause any damage when using a product, neither do they want to injure themselves or others. Technical writers therefore put a great deal of thought into the subject of safety.

On the skills behind a warning

We’re confronted by warnings every day. However, formulating a warning correctly and in the appropriate manner is not as simple as it seems. In a specific situation, a simple “Danger!” will often suffice, as it immediately attracts everyone’s attention.

It’s a bit more complicated in the case of instruction manuals, for several reasons. For one thing, the hazard is frequently not as obvious as in everyday situations. We all know, for instance, that a hairdryer runs on electricity. Most people are also aware that water and electricity do not make a good combination. But because we can’t see electricity, somebody might still be tempted to take the hairdryer into the shower. We therefore also have to ensure that we warn against hazards that perhaps aren’t obvious at first glance.

In addition, we normally don’t know exactly who’ll be reading and using our manuals. When we meet people face-to-face, we can often quickly weigh up whether a single word is all that is needed as a warning, or whether a longer explanation would be more appropriate. And there’s another problem: in the case of an instruction manual, we’ve no way of telling whether the reader has actually grasped the significance of the warning. Or – in the worst case – we find out when it’s already too late and the damage has been done. This is why we have to ensure that warnings in instruction manuals really address all the most significant points. What is the hazard? What could happen? How dangerous is it? And what can we do about it? The more we look into it, the sooner we realise that something as simple as a warning can in fact be quite complicated.

About standards and SAFEs

Warnings in instruction manuals have the greatest impact when they are presented in the form of prominently highlighted boxes. These are – to give them their correct term – what we refer to as “Warning notices”. Ideally, the use of warning notices in technical writing should adhere to a specific standard. Doing so makes it harder to forget the key things while writing, and it’s easier to check if something’s missing when the completed manual is proof-read.

The SAFE formula forms the basis for a widely used type of warning notice in technical writing. Each letter in this abbreviation represents a particular aspect of the warning. Let’s look at each letter in turn:

  • S: Signal word
    The signal word (e.g. “Danger”, “Warning”, “Note”) not only indicates the presence of a hazard, it also denotes its severity. The signal word is also often highlighted using colour or a symbol.
  • A: Analysis of the source and nature of the risk
    This clearly describes the nature of the hazard and what causes it. Taking our example of a hairdryer, that might be “Danger from electric current”.
  • F: Further consequences
    What could/would happen if the hazard were to materialise? The further consequences will differ according to the nature of the hazard. In the worst case, that would (if you were to take your hairdryer into the shower) be the danger of death.
  • E: Evasion
    What do I have to do to ensure the hazard never occurs? Sometimes it’s easy (don’t let your hairdryer come into contact with water), but sometimes it’s really complicated. The relevant section would then be moved to a separate chapter, with the warning notice just containing a reference to that chapter.

At the right time

But even assuming everything’s been formulated correctly, there’s another important point that still has to be considered: when is the right time to issue a warning about something? The answer to this is complex, as there are a number of competing factors around whether and when to insert a warning notice. Firstly, a warning should only be included if the hazard is unavoidable. If a hazard can be eliminated by constructing the device in a different way, then the device must be modified.

If the device is already finished, many technical writers tend to include as many warnings as possible to ensure that every conceivable hazard has been addressed. However, this can have the opposite effect if, for example, customers feel that what is in fact a harmless product is portrayed as being hugely complex and dangerous. On the other hand, a warning must be present if it is absolutely essential; in some cases, a standard will even stipulate that a warning notice is to be included.

In the right place

There are two well-defined locations where warnings are placed in instruction manuals. One is right at the beginning of the manual in a dedicated chapter that contains a summary of the product’s hazard potential and explains how it can nevertheless be operated safely despite the residual risk. A chapter like this is referred to as a safety chapter – and the correct technical description of the warnings it contains is “Safety notices”. They are frequently formulated in more detail and are less rigorously standardised than warning notices that follow the SAFE formula.

The other appropriate location for warnings is anywhere in the manual where the user is instructed to carry out a particular operation, typically in step-by-step instructions. It is important that the warning is issued before the user carries out what might be a potentially dangerous action. This is the domain of the warning notice, which was discussed earlier. It is a pointed, situation-specific alert to the reader of an instruction manual to proceed with the utmost caution at this point.

The fact that the same hazard may exist in several different scenarios also means that the same warning notice can crop up several times within a manual. This particular challenge is easily overcome using a modular approach and a Component Content Management System, such as SCHEMA ST4. The challenge for the technical writer remains one of deciding: “Where do I need to include warnings and what form should they take? And do I perhaps tend to exaggerate my warning impulse?”

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