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At our last STC chapter meeting, an associate professor of communication
from a local university was our speaker. He specializes in hazard
warnings, product labels,that kind of thing. He has also served as an
"expert witness" on behalf of companies who are being sued by people who
got injured using the companies' products.
He also relies on the ANSI standard Howard Rauch discussed.
The speaker made some interesting points. Assuming I understood them
clearly, here they are:
First, as an expert witness for the defendants, he argues that the point
of a hazard communication is to diminish uncertainty--*not* to cause
people to behave in a certain way. In his commmunication model as
applied to, say, label instructions on how to use something, he shows 7
steps. The first is exposure (the message is there). Second is awareness
(user sees the message). Third is comprehension (user gets the message).
I forget fourth; fifth is compliance (user complies with msg). At that
point (compliance), two external impacts hit: personal factors and
situational factors.Personal factors include familiarity with product;
situational factors includes what the people around you do. His research
showed that, in an experiment where wearing gloves would reduce the risk
of injury, people wouldn't follow the directions on the can and wear
them, even if they saw someone get skin burns from the product!! The
only factor that really influenced the experiment subjects' behavior was
whether or not the "stooge" for the experiment put the gloves on.
The implications of the personal factor "familiarity" include this: the
more people use the product (alcohol, weapons), the less dangerous they
perceive the product to be. People who don't use them perceive them as
dangerous.Trying to get your point across to likely users by screaming
at them with "high fear" appeals may induce a boomerang effect, because
you've lost all credibility.
The speaker also said that companies can look bad real fast in a
lawsuit if they've spent gadzooks of bucks on advertising but none on
usabiity testing. (Hint, hint). He also suggested that manuals for
employee use, where you have some control over how people use the hazard
warnings, should include training, in an effort to take what advantage
you can of the way people tend to follow other people's behavior.
(BTW, a truly frightening part of his presentation was this: he said
that the biggest lobbying group in DC is plaintiff's lawyers--bigger
than the NRA.)
Someone called me once; he wanted me to review a product manual that
was written by a temp from a secretarial agency, and write a letter for
him saying that it was up to "current technical writing standards" *and*
be prepared to act as expert witness in case his product hurt someone! I
declined, but referred him to someone I found who does this sort of
thing--for $400 an hour.
Mary A. Durlak
Erie Documentation Inc.
East Aurora, NY