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Error Message Design: When things go wrong

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12 August 2010

This week one of the hot topics in my Twitter feed was 404 pages, how to design them, and how not to design them. This immediately struck a chord with an issue I encounter way too often: Error messages are almost never designed, and I have yet to see a single website brief which includes error message copy. There are exceptions, but they are so few & far between that, when they happen, they attract enormous support.

And that’s the whole point.

Error Message: When things go wrong

In the retail and service sector, there’s a well-known, yet unexpected way in which new customers are turned into loyal customers. It works as follows:

  • A customer has a complaint. They see someone at customer support.
  • The person at customer support solves their problem as well as possible, but above all, treat them with the highest of respect and dignity. The customer support officer needs to be a senior employee with advanced people’s skills.
  • The customer leaves, not only with their problem solved, but with an unbreakable mental association between your business and the person who treated them so well. This instantly turns them into a loyal customer. They feel that they have seen the guts of your business, and not just the carefully manicured face. And they liked it.

How does this apply to websites?

Error message copy

When something goes wrong, like your website’s database server crashing, your pages getting corrupted, or even just when the user forgets to fill out a required field in a form, they are put in a situation where they see something different than the carefully designed front end of your website.

They see some kind of error message. How do these error messages treat them?

  • Error message should not contain detailed technical information (or some cryptic phrase) that the developer used to debug the site, none of which makes any sense to the user. This is intuitively wrong, but so often the case. This is what happens if no copy is written for error messages, and it’s left up to the developer.
  • Error messages could be funny (do resist the temptation to crack an in-joke, though).
  • If at all possible error messages should go as far as providing an alternative way of leading the user to that which they have looked for in the first place. This is ideal, and this is what every error message should strive to achieve.

Error Message Design

Error messages should stand out (maybe even jump out), especially in the case where the user is required to fix some input errors (like on html forms). It’s not necessary to make it too ugly or out of step with the rest of the design, but do make it the most obvious item on the page.

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