The Art (and Humor) of Error Messages

Error recovery strategies and the verbiage around them has always been a hot topic of debate. We’ve all heard the classical “I’m sorry I didn’t hear you.” and “I’m sorry I didn’t understand you.” messages that are normally implemented as global prefixes to further attempts to help users get back on track. Some other designers prefer to eliminate this generic approach and opt instead for a more context-sensitive alternative, where based on the possible cause of error, you could very well eliminate them completely and simply attempt to reprompt the user in a more natural way, with maybe a slight change in intonation to convey the meaning of “Hello, are you listening to me?” in a subtle way.

In regards to the content of the error messages themselves, we’ve all heard that they should not simply be repetitions of what the user has already heard, but rather slightly different variations based on the context and possible cause of the problem in the first place, so as to try to help them recover: is it due to a noisy environment? is the user providing me more information than I’m requesting? are they struggling to find it? do they need more time? are they getting confused by what I’m asking?, etc.

Of course, errors are nothing new and are particularly prevalent in the software and web world, where the value of the message and its ability to help users recover is very often dubious (or flat out ridiculous), resulting in bad user experiences. Some examples:

“Unknown Error -1”

“Keyboard error (press F1 to resume)”

“Wrong parameter”

“An unexpected error occurred, because an error of type – 110 occurred.”

“It is not necessary to dial 0 after the country code for this country.” (If they know that, why not simply recognize it, remove/ignore the 0 and move on?)

Some others here and here.

With that in mind, I have to say I found it very refreshing when my Firefox browser recently crashed and I was presented with the following message:

I found a few interesting things about it that made me think about my own error prompts:

  1. It’s unexpected – talk about user expectations. You know having an error (or crashing in this case) is not fun. Yet the unexpected style distracts you and in my case made me feel a little better about the situation (ok, ok, I’ll admit it, it made me smile)
  2. Even though it had a funny side, it was still useful. It clearly states what the problem was in terms I understand (my windows and tabs), plus it gives me a possible reason for the problem which might help me avoid the problem in the future (a recent web page)
  3. It provides solutions on how to fix it

Reduce the negative impact of an error + clear description of error + clear explanation of the possible cause + alternatives to solve it. When was the last time your error messages achieved all these goals?

5 thoughts on “The Art (and Humor) of Error Messages”

  1. Ditto about the Firefox. It’s something you can understand without being a web developer…and the error is designed for the user, not the web developer. What a novel concept!

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