Documentation should prepare readers to safely use the product. US law stipulates that a manual must list any hazards that may occur “from the intended or unintended but reasonably foreseeable use of its products.” You have a legal duty to warn consumers when:
- The product supplied is dangerous
- The danger is or should be known by the manufacturer
- The danger is present when the product is used in the usual and expected manner
- The danger is not obvious or well known to the user
Failure to “adequately” warn consumers opens your company up to lawsuits. So, what exactly makes a warning “adequate”? Good question. Adequacy is almost impossible to define. It’s much easier to define what is not adequate. Here’s a few common ways that manuals fall short:
- Failure to warn users about how to properly use a product.
- Failure to warn against risks from proper use of a product.
- Failure to warn against any reasonably foreseeable misuses of a product.
The key commonality is that everything listed could result in bodily harm or death.
Safety information must also be accessible to your readers. So, warnings should stand out from the rest of the documents, possibly with icons, colored fonts, or bolding. They should also be easy to understand. A confusing warning is just as bad as not warning users at all.
Many companies list warnings at the beginning of the manual to give them prominence. That’s fine, but also list hazards where the reader might encounter them in your instructions.
Of course, it’s tempting to frontload your manual with pages and pages of warnings as a preemptive strike against lawsuits. Lots of companies do it. Every electronic product is dangerous if you stick your tongue in the socket along with the plug. Just be reasonable. We’ve seen warnings that border on the bizarre: “Do not eat your iPod Shuffle”; “Do not use your hairdryer while sleeping”; “Do not use this rotary drill as a home dentistry kit,” etc.
Before you brainstorm a list of improbable-but-possible warnings, we’ve got a warning of our own: Too many warnings—especially ridiculous ones—make the whole safety section seem silly. Then, no one takes the warnings seriously—not even the real ones. Remember: You only have to caution users when a danger is “reasonably foreseeable.” Aim for the Goldilocks principle: find the middle ground between not enough warnings and way too many.
Liability laws vary by country. European liability regulations are decidedly strict, and Asian liability laws are starting to follow suit. If you plan on selling your wares internationally, you will have to account for various regional liability requirements. Learn about liability concerns and relevant international product liabilities before you publish your manual. As always, consult a lawyer for specific information on how to construct warnings.