Monday, January 7, 2008

The Information Architecture of Warnings

I recently bought a new car which brought me face to face with one of my pet peeves: car owner's manuals.

For many years I wrote technical documentation myself, before becoming an information architect. I know that describing even the simplest process effectively is not an easy task. But, really, there has to be a better way.

There are so many problems with owner's manuals -- particularly car guides -- it is hard to know where to begin. But almost all of the issues emanate from a single critical flaw; the desire or requirement to document all known issues essentially makes even the most basic information impossible to find or absorb.

Looking at it from a purely statistical perspective:
  • The owner's manual for my new car has 384 pages.
  • The first 83 pages (ignoring the 24 pages of front material such as copyrights, table of contents, preface, etc) contain information supposedly necessary before you drive the car.
  • Of these 83 pages, 36% contain warnings or notices*, in most cases occupying the entire page.
  • The next section, on driving the car, starts with a 3 page summary of basic information, listing step by step procedures for starting, driving, and parking the car. This is followed by 6 full pages of warnings.

The writers of this particular owner's guide should be commended, because they have tried to make it useful. The three page step-by-step summary for driving the car is really quite good. Unfortunately, it is buried deep into the manual (pages 110-112) and overshadowed by double the number of pages of warnings that follows it.

How does this happen? Why aren't the basic operating procedures up front and clearly identifiable? The problem is that long ago the focus shifted away from information to help the owner use their vehicle to listing every conceivable thing they could cause problems. Or to put it more crassly, anything that could result in a lawsuit. This is an example of what could be called the information architecture of litigation avoidance.

How else can you explain statements like the following?

Do not drive the vehicle over or stop the vehicle near flammable materials...
Do not touch the exhaust pipe while the engine is running...
When taking a nap in the vehicle, always turn the engine off...

Now, I am not taking exception to this particular owner's manual. It is really no worse than those of any of the other cars I've owned. As I pointed out, they have even tried to improve it. But the problem is endemic of all car owner's manuals. They cannot escape the ethos of litigation avoidance.

In fact, it is endemic of almost all mechanical goods: VCRs, TVs, cell phones, etc. The difference with cars is the size of the manual. The owner's manual for my new car is 384 pages long. The instructions for the last DVD/VCR recorder I bought is 30 pages. But the recorder has the same problem -- the first two pages are all cautions and "important safety instructions". (Instruction #3: "heed all warnings." Say what?)

One difference with my new car is that they seem to have recognized the problem and tried to work around it. Company lawyers won't let you remove the warnings, so what they did with my new car is attach notes to the car itself in the form of small elasticized tags. There is one for operating the windshield wipers; another for adjusting the clock.

These tags are a creative way to get around the muddle that has been made of the owner's manual. The best is an 18 page quick reference guide that summarizes the basic operation of the vehicle, with almost no sign of warnings or threats in it. (They get away with this by adding a disclaimer on the inside cover explaining that the quick reference guide is not a full description and that "every [car] owner should review the owner's manual... pay special attention to the boxed information in yellow" -- in other words, the warnings.)

Again, kudos to the group that thought this up. Unfortunately, even this good idea is sabotaged by its own success; the tags were obviously so well received they decided that more information needed to be brought to the driver's attention this way. As a result there were no fewer than five separate tags -- most of them two sided! -- attached to knobs and levers in the car when I picked it up. I had no choice but to detach them all and make a pile of them on the passenger seat so I could drive. It wasn't until 4 or 5 days later when I was sorting through all the paper work that I discovered that one of the tags was the quick reference guide.

Providing effective instructional information is difficult. There is no perfect answer for balancing the need to address basic usage and warnings against misuse. Car owner's manuals are perhaps the poster child of how not to do it. Later I'll discuss some other approaches.

* There doesn't seem to be any standard terminology, but almost all manuals distinguish between warnings about actions that might cause personal injury to people and those that cause damage to the product. In the case of the owner's manual, the former are referred to as Cautions and the latter as Notices.

No comments: