Writing good error messages

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Writing good error messages

To my ever-expanding frustration, and general astonishment (to which my wife expresses a weary kind of amazement: why are you so surprised, you know it does that…), things never seem to go entirely smoothly. (And if they do, I’m left with a trepidatious feeling that things in fact haven’t gone smoothly,  and that I just haven’t found out yet…)

By things, I mean stuff. Whether it be assembling flat-packed furniture (why don’t the holes line up!?), attempting car repairs (OK, I think I can see the bolt we dropped. If we just loosen off an engine mount, jack up the engine, and use the magnetic goose-necked tool and The Force, we should be able to get to it with, oh, only 45 minutes of protracted swearing and knuckle skinning.), and, of course, anything to do with computers.

Oh, the fun I had trying to get wi-fi to work properly on my Macbook Air…

So, no matter how carefully you plan, how carefully you build things, shiz will break. The user experience when handling these situations is really important. And if done right, can actually increase faith in your product. If done wrong, frustrated users will go out of their way to share their crappy experiences (I know I do).

Here’s an example of a frustrating error message:

Unexpected error occurred.

What am I meant to do with that information? This doesn’t tell me what happened or how to continue.

A good error message needs to:

  • explain what went wrong (in the appropriate tone)
  • tell people how they can fix it, or if it’s out of their control, give a timeframe for when things will be fixed
  • provide alternative resolution channels if the borkage continues.

Explain what went wrong

In language that your audience will understand, you need to succinctly describe the problem. The problem may be on your end, or it could be a user issue. Whatever the case, don’t make your customers feel stupid by using language they won’t understand, or by using a tone that implies something is their fault. Be magnanimous. Accept all the blame. (And don’t forget to say ‘sorry’!)

Sorry!

That picture is too big for us to process.

Pictures must be smaller than 5MB.

Humour may be appropriate for a small, easy-to-fix error. But don’t present jocular error messages when someone has just lost the fruits of significant effort. (Like when a service times out, while you’re rummaging through your filing cabinet for the last bit of information for a long form…)

Oops! We, heh, um, lost everything you’ve input over the last 30 minutes. Ha! I expect that’s rather vexing!

People will want to hunt you down.

Tell people how to fix it

If the issue is a user issue, tell them how they can fix it.

Pictures must be smaller than 5MB. (You might need to use an image editing program to reduce the size first.)

Usernames must include both uppercase and lowercase letters.

Note, if you do have certain requirements for certain inputs, make sure you tell people up front. Don’t neglect to tell people something, and then expect compliance.

Oh, yeah! passwords need to be at least 8 characters, and include numbers, letters, at least 1 Greek character and an emoticon.

If the issue is at your end, let them know that the internet pixies have been deployed, and when the issue should be fixed.

Sorry!

The database is not responding. We’re working to fix this as soon as possible.

Please try again in a few minutes.

If the issue is something the user can resolve online, put the link to the action in the message. Don’t give roundabout instructions… (Particularly if they’re platform specific.)

Please log in to your account via the log-in button on the right-hand-side panel.

What?

(Caution needs to be exercised here; you don’t want to send people off to another part of the site or app if it means they will lose information they have already input.)

Provide alternative resolution channels

No matter how carefully we bug test and empathise with our customers, there will always be unanticipated situations that can’t be handled via the standard advice. Give people an alternative path to resolution if they simply can’t get things to work…

A complete message might look like:

Sorry!

That picture is too big for us to process.

Pictures must be smaller than 5MB. (You might need to use an image editing program to reduce the size first.)

Upload a different image

(Still won’t work? Ask our help desk.)

By | 2017-05-19T08:20:54+00:00 March 18th, 2015|Accessibility, Design, Did you know, Pinned, UX, Web writing|0 Comments

About the Author:

Writer, editor, musician, plain English evangelist, content ninja for hire, and general web guy, Rory does lots of things, when he has time...

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