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Usability of Error Messages

Usability of Error Messages

Usability of Error Messages

Error messages are often a cause of frustration and yet it isn't hard to create error messages that are helpful and even make the user feel good! I bought a new iPod the other day and, upon first connecting it to my PC, was prompted to automatically install the latest firmware upgrade. Great! But midway through the installation iTunes stopped with an error:

The iPod cannot be updated. An unknown error occurred (1418)

I tried again but it kept failing. So, being fairly tech-savvy, I did a Google search for "iTunes error 1418" and discovered that this is a very common problem with several documented solutions and a dedicated page on the Apple support site. Quite aside from the fact that this problem seems to have existed for several years and has still not been fixed (none of the solutions listed worked for me), the error message is terrible. It's clearly not an unknown error if a web search finds 36,000 sites mentioning it and it gives no indication of what to do next. I knew what to search for but your average iTunes user probably wouldn't even think of searching for the error message. And why should they have to? iTunes is designed to be an online application so why not link directly to the Apple support page detailing possible solutions? In general, error messages need two components:

  1. A brief but specific explanation of what went wrong.
  2. At least one suggestion of what to do next.

Exact details of the cause are necessary in order to pinpoint the error - a generic message such as "This program has performed an illegal operation" isn't much use to anyone. Without a suggestion of what to do next, the user is likely to feel lost and may well simply give up. Additionally the wording of the error should be polite and employ language the user understands. Most people find the concept of a programme doing something 'illegal' highly amusing. That is, until it results in the sudden loss of all their important work! David Pogue of the New York Times recently posted an amusing transcript from a real tech support conversation that illustrates bad error message wording:

Caller: Hey, can you help me? My computer has locked up, and no matter how many times I type eleven, it won’t unfreeze. Agent: What do you mean, “type eleven?” Caller: The message on my screen says, “Error Type 11!”

We're not without our own bad error messages here at PlusNet either. For example the portal sign-in page recently displayed this error when I tried to sign in:

Invalid username or password. Please try again.

At first this looks like a sensible message: it tells you what's wrong and suggests what to do next. However the username and password I entered were perfectly valid and trying again wouldn't have helped at all. The real cause of the error was that I had turned off cookies in my browser! Not only is the error message misleading but because it is a generic error, it is impossible for even a technical support agent to tell what the real cause of the error is. And finally an error message from back in the day... Anyone who has used an old Apple Mac will remember this:

How reassuring! "Sorry, your computer is about to explode." Apparently many people were genuinely afraid to touch their computers upon seeing the bomb icon, preferring to wait hours or days until somebody came who could reassure them that they were not in immediate danger. Of course, any reference to bombs would be unthinkable today for several reasons but the blight of bad error messages continues.

Have you seen any good or bad errors recently?

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