"Obvious" warnings - drawing the line?

Subject: "Obvious" warnings - drawing the line?
From: "Hart, Geoff" <Geoff-H -at- MTL -dot- FERIC -dot- CA>
To: "TECHWR-L" <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- raycomm -dot- com>
Date: Fri, 2 Aug 2002 08:56:57 -0400

David Downing wonders: <<Where do you draw the line between something that
"anybody oughta know" and something that people may legitimately not be
aware of and thus have a legitimate need to be warned against?>>

You can't, because apart from clearly defined issues (when the product is
being used in the single narrow sense for which it's intended), the point at
which the product is no longer being used for it's intended purpose becomes
very subjective. At that point, it depends more on the skill of your lawyer
than on the sense of the situation whether you provided adequate warning.
Scary, isn't it?

As I noted in a previous message, there's a standard engineering joke that
it's impossible to produce a foolproof product because Nature always evolves
a more skillful fool. The annual Darwin Awards
(http://www.darwinawards.com/) celebrate this law of Nature; many of these I
suspect of being urban legends or premeditated attempts at humor, but I've
seen almost equally stupid things reported in the newspaper.

That being said, the only sane approach is to document the product using a
rigorous understanding of the many personas the reader may adopt: That is,
what is the product intended to do, and how will people use it to accomplish
that goal? Once you know how they'll use it, you can begin predicting ways
they could diverge from that path and still be seen as using the product in
its intended manner. If you're clear on the right way to do something, then
that implies you've also thought about various wrong ways and can provide
warnings not to attempt those ways.

For example, your documentation might say "grasp the plug by the plastic
sheathing, not by the metal prongs, when you insert it into the socket".
It's reasonable (but stupid) to expect that someone would try to hold the
metal during plug insertion under certain circumstances; for example, while
groping behind the TV stand and trying to simultaneously touch both the
holes in the socket and the plug so you can align them. (Rather than doing
the sane thing and moving the TV stand.) Anybody here ever done that in a
moment of late-night weakness? Anybody ever used it as an example to make
his point? <g>

--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
"The skill of writing is to create a context in which other people can
think."--Edwin Schlossberg, designer (1945- )

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