TechWhirl (TECHWR-L) is a resource for technical writing and technical communications professionals of all experience levels and in all industries to share their experiences and acquire information.
For two decades, technical communicators have turned to TechWhirl to ask and answer questions about the always-changing world of technical communications, such as tools, skills, career paths, methodologies, and emerging industries. The TechWhirl Archives and magazine, created for, by and about technical writers, offer a wealth of knowledge to everyone with an interest in any aspect of technical communications.
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
<<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
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
<<1. Is there any argument you can think of for not suggesting the
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.
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - --
Geoff Hart ghart -at- videotron -dot- ca
(try geoffhart -at- mac -dot- com if you don't get a reply)