Why do we put so many warnings in our manuals?

Subject: Why do we put so many warnings in our manuals?
From: "Hart, Geoff" <Geoff-H -at- MTL -dot- FERIC -dot- CA>
To: "TECHWR-L" <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- raycomm -dot- com>
Date: Tue, 30 Jul 2002 16:12:19 -0400

North American culture is the culture of the victim, in which personal
responsibility is never accepted so long as it's still possible to blame
someone else for your problems. That's not to say that all North Americans
(the only group I have broad experience with) behave this way, but it
certainly seems a safe generalization in my experience. Of course, all
generalisations have many exceptions, but it's worthwhile remembering that
some people would rather sue you than try to think through a problem.

So we really do have to take great pains to make our products safe, and
exercise considerable ingenuity in figuring out how people could hurt
themselves so we can stop them. We can only rarely browbeat product
developers into fixing problematic products, and thus, end up trying to
solve those problems via documentation. The unfortunate reality is that this
is impossible. Engineers have a deliciously cynical saying that "you can't
develop a foolproof product because Nature always evolves a more tenacious
fool". It's true.

Think I'm kidding? Check out http://www.amasci.com/weird/microexp.html for a
long list of things you really shouldn't do with your microwave oven. Then
there are the things you already do without thinking twice about it, but
probably shouldn't do; follow the link for exploding coffee for an example
of this category. Can you imagine trying to sell management on a proposal to
include instructions not to do any of these things in a manual for a
microwave oven? Not likely.

This leaves us in the unenviable position of having to litter our manuals
with warnings and cautions and notes. But let's face it: if we don't do it,
who will do it for us?

--Geoff Hart, geoff-h -at- mtl -dot- feric -dot- ca
Forest Engineering Research Institute of Canada
580 boul. St-Jean
Pointe-Claire, Que., H9R 3J9 Canada
"User's advocate" online monthly at
"Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from a
personality, and an obnoxious one at that."--Kim Roper

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