Alerts are precious, use them sparsely

You find them in nearly every manual; alerts. They tell the reader something special. Be it info or note, caution or warning. There are guidelines on how to create them, but no standards, which is strange. Let’s have a look at definitions, stylisation and more.

Definitions

Note / Info/ Tip: handy information for the user to work more efficiently. There is no direct threat to the system or the user.
Don’t use this prompt type for information you cannot place anywhere else in the manual. In that case, just leave the information out.
Example: Download the latest Windows 10 update for a better performance of the application.
Usage: software manuals, machine manuals, medicine manuals

Caution: information that points at a possible system failure, physical or financial damage.
The user better reads this information although it is not a matter off life-or-death.
Example: Make sure to follow EU regulation EU../… . Fines are high.
Usage: machine manuals, medicine manuals.

Warning: information of the highest alert, not following up might cause lethal damage.
If the user does not read this information he might end up in serious trouble or more.
Example: Always use the safety valve before starting maintenance. Not using the safety valve might lead to electrocution and death.
Usage: machine manuals, medicine manuals

Style

A few simple guidelines:

  • Present the prompts with their own icons
    You could use a skull for Warning, a raised finger for Caution and a light bulb for Note or Tip.
  • Present the prompts always in the same format
  • Use colors to distinguish between severity.
    Danger
    warning
    caution
  • Uppercase the alert type (NOTE, CAUTION, WARNING)
    warning8.png
  • Use the Sans-Serif font type for the alert type.
  • Use borders.

Use

Alerts should stick out. They cannot be overlooked. This does not mean that you should fill a manual with an endless number of Warnings and Cautions. Use them sparsely to attract more attention, use them widely to lose the interest of the reader.

Further reading

Follow the link to read or download the thesis of Rachel Roe on this subject.
Design standards for safety warning messagesges in manuals

 

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