Printed instructions: can research make a difference?
Instructions are part of daily life. We all operate machines, use community services (e.g. transport, leisure or communication facilities) and have health care requirements. Failure to understand or carry out instructions can have serious consequences. Machines operated incorrectly may be unsafe. Quality of life is reduced when help and support available is not known. Misuse of medicines and nutritional products damages consumers’ health. Services people do not adopt, because they do not understand how to access them, increase costs to service providers. It also wastes consumers’ money and loses manufacturers further sales. For example, Waller (1993) commented on an attempt to microwave his supper, ‘By following the instructions carefully I recently managed to fuse a ready-meal to its container and render it inedible’. Unfortunate consequences arise from recipients not understanding, and so not acting appropriately, on information in solicitors’ letters (Adler, 1993). International legislation can make things worse. For people concerned about what they eat, or with special dietary requirements, the nutritional information listed with ingredients is an implicit instruction advising ‘Eat me’ or ‘Don’t eat me’. Black and Rayner (1992) found many people did not interpret this material to make appropriate decisions when ingredients were provided in the numerical form required by the European Economic Community (Commission
of the European Communities, 1990). Most people do not know if 0.3 grams of sodium per 100 grams is above or below average. Black and Rayner examined alternative label designs, asking people, ‘Do you think this food would be a wise choice for a healthy diet?’ Errors fell from 35 per cent to 12 per cent when numbers were supplemented with verbal and graphic information. So design can clearly make a difference, and research can provide evidence to quantify this difference.