Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Emotional Warning Light

I’ve long been an advocate of the advantages of using a controlled authoring vocabulary in producing technical documentation. The concept of one word = one meaning is central to this concept and is the underpinning of standards such as Simplified Technical English (STE).

In short ambiguity can lead to mistakes, or in extreme cases even cause fatalities. But one thing I hadn’t thought about before is that as well as considering the literal meanings of the words and phrases used, we should also consider the emotional and psychological impact.

It was an article by veteran racer and motoring journalist Denise McCluggage in a recent (16 June 2008) AutoWeek magazine that opened my eyes on this subject.

Denise’s article discussed the impact of the “CHECK ENGINE” warning light common in most vehicles today.

By all the rules and principles of controlled authoring that’s a perfect valid warning statement. Clear, concise, using simple words with well defined meanings.

But as Denise points out it has the potential for two distinctly different emotional impacts.

For a typical car guy (like me) the response to the “CHECK ENGINE” warning may be “rats I need to take the car in to the dealers at some point, where they will do some minor adjustment and charge me an arm and a leg for it.” After a few go-arounds when the car doesn’t do anything untoward they may even ignore the warning altogether.

But for a female driver the response to the “CHECK ENGINE” light may be concern that the engine, the thing that makes the car go, is about to fail and leave her stranded at the side of the road. Her reaction maybe that that warning could lead to something that will put her in a potential life-threatening situation.

As Denise goes on to point out the “CHECK ENGINE” light really means that “something might be amiss with the emission system and you should really have it looked at next time you are in the shop for routine maintenance.

So the choice of words is not as good as I first thought it was. Maybe it should read “Emission Controls Service Due.”

In short this article made me realize that as well as making sure we use the right vocabulary we should also be taking just as much notice of technical context and audience psychology.

Preparing technical communication is not just about passing on knowledge, its also about the emotion with which the message is received.

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