Re: Question about warning and caution icons

Subject: Re: Question about warning and caution icons
From: Geoff Hart <ghart -at- videotron -dot- ca>
To: TECHWR-L <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- techwr-l -dot- com>, Dick Margulis <margulisd -at- comcast -dot- net>
Date: Tue, 15 Aug 2006 20:36:15 -0400

Dick Margulis wondered: <<I landed a contract to do a user manual for a medical device to be used in operating rooms, ICUs, etc.>>

A word of caution: CYA. Make even more sure than usual that your contract specifies that the client is responsible for all errors in content. You don't want to be the guy blamed for any accidents that result from using the equipment.

<<The customer provided several pages of warnings and cautions for me to drop in at the beginning of the book, and our agreement is that they're responsible for them; I'll use them for reference so I can drop copies of individual warnings and cautions into the procedures where needed. I'm not involved in editing them.>>

Fair enough, but don't let that stop you from pointing out any problems. You're the communication expert, and if you spot a problem, they should listen to you. At a minimum, they should give you a written "shut up and leave the warnings to us" in response to your criticism.

<<At the suggestion of the company's EU distributor, they formatted warnings and cautions as follows: There is a run-in heading (either "Warning:" or "Caution:") in bold, followed by the text of the message.>>

That's pretty much all you need. An icon makes it stand out more, but isn't necessary if you use appropriate typographic cues (or even a box around the text) to make the warning stand out. Or (see below) if you take other appropriate precautions.

<<To the left of each such paragraph, rather than a standard triangle icon, there is a low-res, screened image of a typographic "fist" (or "index"), that is, a hand with its forefinger extended to the right. The same fist is used for both warnings and cautions.>>

I agree with you that this isn't particularly professional. I know there are standards for iconography, but you should look for ones established for medical equipment manufacturers. I don't know 'em, and can't recommend a source. Googling with the following search string turned up a batch of promising leads:
"medical equipment" warning icon standard

OSHA also has a publication that may prove interesting if nobody can provide an authoritative standard:

<<1. Is there any argument you can think of for not suggesting the change?>>

Nope. But I would propose something even more radical: where possible, eliminate or minimize the need for the warnings in the first place. You still want to include a warning message (redundancy decreases the chance someone will miss a key warning), but the warning message should not be the only way to prevent a disaster.

Many warnings go unread because they're not part of the procedure, and you can minimize the risk of that particular problem by supplementing the warning with a procedural step. For example, if the warning says "unplug this device before sticking a screwdriver in the back", step 1 of the procedure should be "1. Unplug the power cord." The warning may still be "you're gonna die if you stick a screwdriver into the back without unplugging the machine", but step 1 should reinforce the warning.

In other cases, the need for a warning is symptomatic of a serious design flaw. For example, my frontloading washing machine and dishwasher won't start filling with water until a sensor detects that the door is closed. A warning that says "make sure the door is closed" won't help much because I don't know anyone other than a technical writer who ever read their washing machine manual. Better to design around the problem. I do recognize the fact that you can't necessarily influence the design, but it's ethical to at least try. Doubly so when the context is medical equipment, where lives are clearly at stake.
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Geoff Hart ghart -at- videotron -dot- ca

(try geoffhart -at- mac -dot- com if you don't get a reply)

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