A Life or Death User Guide

The state of Oregon will soon ban the sale of suicide kits in response to the tragic death of 29 year old Nick Klonoski, a depressed man who killed himself using a kit he ordered through the mail.

These kits cost $60 and contain a plastic bag that fits over the head, a plastic tube for attaching to a tank of helium gas, and detailed instructions.

Although Oregon allows doctors to help terminally ill patients end their lives, it certainly has not legalized suicide for mentally ill individuals. The fact that anyone can easily purchase these kits has spurred the government into action.

This very sad case raises a disturbing thought experiment for information developers:

Imagine you were forced, under threat of death, to develop the user guide for this suicide kit. You are given all the technical specifications and procedural information, but you have permission to write any text you wish. You know that some of the users are not terminally ill, but are instead depressed.

What information would you include in your guide, which is literally a “life and death” document?

Knowing our users, we would include a warning such as:

WARNING! This kit is only intended for people who are terminally ill. If you do not have a physical illness, or think you might be depressed or suicidal, please call 911 or the local suicide prevention number….

Now imagine the same scenario, but this time the manufacturer of the kit must approve your draft. They have told you that you cannot include any type of warning for depressed people. If you do, it will be deleted.

Now what do you write? How do you give a user information without explicitly stating it? Simple – by implicitly stating it, as follows: 

Note: This kit is only intended for patients that have been diagnosed by a doctor as having a painful and terminal illness.

The irony here is that this note could be more effective than the traditional warning. It does not explicitly tell a depressed user what to do. Instead, it subtly suggests that this guide does not apply to them. It plants a seed that could save the user’s life.

Returning to the real world of ordinary documentation, we often have to balance what a user wants to know against:

  • what a user needs to know (even if they don’t want to know it)
  • the requirements of the manufacturer

This nightmare scenario of the suicide kit guide illustrates how difficult it can be to balance these competing needs and wants.

Now, most users ignore documentation, and certainly most depressed people would ignore both the warning and the note. But not all of them will, and if the inclusion of this paragraph saves only one life, it will be worth it.

As the Talmud, the ancient book of Jewish law, states:

“Whoever saves a single life, it is as if he saved an entire universe.”

1 thought on “A Life or Death User Guide

  1. There are ethical situations in technical writing, definitely, as you've pointed out. I am thrust into profit versus quality, which can be challenging. I really like the quote at the end of your article. A similar sentiment was written to the pilot who saved an entire plane of people by landing in the Hudson River…it was his favorite letter.

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