Is there a study on reading warnings, notes?

Subject: Is there a study on reading warnings, notes?
From: Geoff Hart <ghart -at- videotron -dot- ca>
To: TECHWR-L List <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- techwr-l -dot- com>, Edwin Skau <eddy -dot- skau -at- gmail -dot- com>
Date: Sat, 01 Nov 2008 07:53:59 -0400

Edwin Skau wondered: <<Is there a study that shows how many people
actually read warnings, notes and tips?>>

I'd bet a couple beer that there are many, but I don't personally
know of any -- I no longer have regular access to research journals.
I tried a quick Google, and came up with far too many results to sift
through, none of the first few screens from journals. Maybe there are
some academic members of our group with better access to journals who
can provide suggestions?

Meantime, if you wanted a quick feel for this, why not poll your own
colleagues: ask 3 or 4 people per day for the next month and by the
end of the month, you'll have nearly 100 replies -- more than in most
rigorously controlled studies. Categorize these replies by occupation
(office worker, engineer, manager, etc.) just out of curiosity, in
case there's a pattern. Let us know how that turns out, because it's
interesting information. Or set up a SurveyMonkey poll for techwr-l!
(Experimental design is much more complicated that that description,
but you can get good initial results using really casual methods.)

(I'd do this myself, but I work at home. A sample size of 2 is not
representative, and doubling the poll size by asking the cats
probably wouldn't be too helpful. <g>)

<<Before I moved to tech writing, I always treated them as 'asides'
for later reading that never happened.>>

And yet you're still alive? Miraculous! <g> Sarcasm aside, this is a
reminder that some of these "asides" exist purely for legal reasons:
like the "caution, the contents are hot" warnings on coffee mugs, the
warning is there to protect your company, not your customers. To be
effective, a caution or warning should be integrated in the
procedure, not set aside where it can be ignored. For instance,
instead of having a sidebar saying "plugging in the device can result
in an electrical shock if you're standing in water", why not make
step 1 of the procedure "Dry any spilled water, your feet, and your
hands before plugging in the device. Failure to comply will..."?

This is also a strong reminder that a well-designed product does its
best to eliminate adverse consequences, or at least to protect its
users from those consequences, thereby eliminating the need for
cautions. With electrical equipment, a ground-fault-interrupt socket
would prevent shocks under these circumstances.

For one of our favorite non-story (the lawsuit about the woman
scalded by McDonald's coffee), making the coffee at an appropriate
temperature would solve the problem. (Here, the real story was not
that the woman should have known that coffee is hot, but rather that
McDonald's allegedly made their coffee too hot despite warnings from
judges in previous lawsuits.) Japanese and Chinese tea cups (the ones
with no handles) have an interesting design feature: if the cup is
too hot to pick up comfortably, the contents are too hot to drink.
That eliminates the need for a "caution, it's hot" warning, because
you won't drink the tea until it's at a safe temperature. Software
could be designed equally sensibly if anyone bothered to take the
time to do so.

<<Many folks I've asked about this have confessed to similar reading

Whereas I read the "asides" first in many cases. But your anecdotal
evidence is important: it reminds us that most people read only the
minimum they need to escape the documentation with the knowledge they
need. Karen Schriver studied this behavior quite some time ago, and
found that something like 80% of all readers do nothing more than dip
into our documentation to escape with what they need and nothing
more, and that broad pattern (not the actual number) appears to be
fairly representative. We need to design documentation around that
principle... for example, by building warnings and cautions into the
steps rather than setting them aside.

-- Geoff Hart
ghart -at- videotron -dot- ca / geoffhart -at- mac -dot- com
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