Note: Caution with Warnings

A guest post by one of our members, Frik de Beer, about an essential component of what we do…

You may have paused at your keyboard like this too: “Is this a Warning or a Caution? Maybe just a Note will do? Who cares, anyway? Don’t scare the horses, but Legal says we must stay safe. I’ll just put something in.”

In the aerospace industry where I spent five exciting years, we used all three regularly and with certainty.

At the start of every document were definitions of our conventions and the ideographics for Warnings, Cautions and Notes. And all Warnings were listed up front in one group. These Warnings, Cautions and Notes were repeated in the document immediately before the relevant procedure steps. And we used red, blue and green text. All that seemed so sensible when describing the loading and arming of a 500 kg bunker busting missile. Or prescribing the set up of the weapons delivery and navigation system of a jet fighter. This post has an image of the Raptor II heavy missile hardware. Everybody does work through the Warnings and Cautions before they light the blue touch paper and they do stand well back.

Now – who cares?

Linear document reading, even printing some sections, has fallen by the wayside. Warnings and Cautions are conflated. Warnings, if they’re identified, seem to be in the small print. We seem almost embarrassed to mention the limitations of our imperfect, but valuable, products.

I recommend being up front and using each callout as follows:

  • Include bold Warnings when misuse can cause someone injury or – perish the thought – lead to death.
  • Cautions should be stated when damage or malfunction may result.
  • Include Notes as useful tips to help the user to ‘make the boat go faster’.

And include these vital text aids in procedure contexts, repeatedly, especially in the disassociated chunks of your on-line documents. It’s easier and cheaper to include these Warnings, Cautions and Notes in colour on-line too.

Let’s raise our game!

Frik de Beer is a technical communicator whose career began in electronics, telecoms, and aerospace in South Africa. Then, he made a new start in New Zealand at Tait Electronics, also working with an industry group to to establish CPIT’s Graduate Diploma in Information Design with the CPIT. Today, he is consulting, teaching innovation related subjects, and contracting in technical communication.  He says, “’I’ve been lucky to work for leading local companies and courageous and inspiring innovators. And I’ve been so lucky to have a great wife, also a technical communicator, who truly gets what my day has been like.”

2 thoughts on “Note: Caution with Warnings

  1. Jon Hertzig says:

    Since most documentation is online these days, it’s also important to consider how reading habits have changed. We’ve learned to filter out ads separate from the body of the text. Highlighting something in a box, instead of drawing attention to it, may make it more likely to be ignored.

    • Emma Harding says:

      Hi Jon – I agree – while a few users are careful to read every word, most of us are in a hurry and just want what we regard as the essentials (and we might be wrong about what is essential). It makes it challenging for technical communicators, especially if there’s an obscure danger. I’d love to know if there has been some research into this area that could guide best practice – on how to design messages that actually get read.

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