Lately, I’ve been thinking about what makes an caution or warning in a piece of documentation effective. While thinking about it the other day, I recalled what was probably the most effective warning I’d ever seen.
It was on a flight to Singapore in the early 1990s. Like everyone else on the flight, I had to fill out a customs form. At the bottom of the form, in bold red letters and all caps where the words:
DEATH FOR DRUG TRAFFICKERS UNDER SINGAPORE LAW
I’m not a drug trafficker. I’ve never had any ambitions to become one. If did, those seven words would have made me reconsider my choice of profession. And quickly.
It’s easy to see what made that warning so effective:
- It framed the problem — trafficking drugs in Singapore
- It made the consequences of the problem — breaking a Singaporean law — quite clear
- It did all that with the minimum of words
Getting away from the usual
As anyone who knows me can tell you, I like to look beyond the status quo. I take a lot of heat for that, too. Simply because something has been done in a certain way for the longest time doesn’t mean that there aren’t other ways to do that something. And there’s no reason to believe that the other way isn’t just as valid.
With cautions and warnings, the status quo is to have some icon or the other marking the caution or warning, followed by the text. The variety of icons is a sight to behold, too. Stop signs, exclamation points, a hand, a person being electrocuted.
That sort of thing works well with documentation that’s printed or delivered as PDF. And a lot of documentation still is. But online, especially documentation that’s delivered on a small screen, I don’t think that this works so well. Icons, no matter how small, take up real estate on a screen. And having them there adds to the clutter. Online documentation should be clean and compact; clutter just gets in the way of the flow.
The warning on the Singaporean customs form is a good example of a simple, yet effective, warning. The fact that it was in larger and bold lettering than the rest of the form, as well as all caps, made it stick out. I’m not a fan of all caps — even without the shouting connotations. How about bold small caps, then? They’re a bit less annoying, yet still stand out from the rest of the text in a section of documentation.
Of course, you’ll want to keep the caution or warning as short as possible. Maybe not seven words, but under 20 words if you can get away with it. As with the warning on the Singaporean customs form, isolate the problem and point out the consequences as quickly as possible.
A problem crops up when you need to differentiate between warnings and cautions without the need for icons. I haven’t quite figured that one out yet. At least, not to my satisfaction — using italics is a bit of a cop out. Using colours isn’t the best solution either, especially if you’re readers have trouble differentiating between colours. If you have any ideas in this area, feel free to leave a comment.
A final thought
I’m not saying that using icons to denote caution or warning text is a bad thing. That technique has its place. That said, it’s not the only solution and it’s not always the best solution. As I’ve stated in this space before, there’s no way of doing things to rule them all. You have to adapt to the way in which the documentation you write is delivered.
Have an opinion about this? As always, feel free to leave a comment.