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The use of contextual cues to improve warning symbol comprehension: making the connection for older adults

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This study teased apart the effects of comprehensibility and complexity on older adults' comprehension of warning symbols by manipulating the relevance of additional information in further refining the meaning of the symbol. Symbols were systematically altered such that increased visual complexity (in the form of contextual cues) resulted in increased comprehensibility. One hundred older adults, aged 50–71 years, were tested on their comprehension of these symbols before and after training. High comprehensibility–complexity symbols were found to be better understood than low- or medium-comprehensibility–complexity symbols and the effectiveness of the contextual cues varied as a function of training. Therefore, the nature of additional detail determines whether increased complexity is detrimental or beneficial to older adults' comprehension – if the additional details provide ‘cues to knowledge’, older adults' comprehension improves as a result of the increased complexity. However, some cues may require training in order to be effective.

Practitioner Summary: Research suggests that older adults have greater difficulty in understanding more complex symbols. However, we found that when the complexity of symbols was increased through the addition of contextual cues, older adults' comprehension actually improved. Contextual cues aid older adults in making the connection between the symbol and its referent.
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Keywords: ageing; safety symbols; training; warnings

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: 1: Center for Behavioral Sciences, Liberty Mutual Research Institute for Safety, Hopkinton, MA, USA 2: Department of Psychology, North Carolina State University, Raleigh, NC, USA

Publication date: August 1, 2013

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