We’re confronted by warnings every day. However, formulating a warning correctly and in the appropriate manner is not as simple as it seems. In a specific situation, a simple “Danger!” will often suffice, as it immediately attracts everyone’s attention.
It’s a bit more complicated in the case of instruction manuals, for several reasons. For one thing, the hazard is frequently not as obvious as in everyday situations. We all know, for instance, that a hairdryer runs on electricity. Most people are also aware that water and electricity do not make a good combination. But because we can’t see electricity, somebody might still be tempted to take the hairdryer into the shower. We therefore also have to ensure that we warn against hazards that perhaps aren’t obvious at first glance.
In addition, we normally don’t know exactly who’ll be reading and using our manuals. When we meet people face-to-face, we can often quickly weigh up whether a single word is all that is needed as a warning, or whether a longer explanation would be more appropriate. And there’s another problem: in the case of an instruction manual, we’ve no way of telling whether the reader has actually grasped the significance of the warning. Or – in the worst case – we find out when it’s already too late and the damage has been done. This is why we have to ensure that warnings in instruction manuals really address all the most significant points. What is the hazard? What could happen? How dangerous is it? And what can we do about it? The more we look into it, the sooner we realise that something as simple as a warning can in fact be quite complicated.