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The art of error messages

I’ve been using devices today, as usual.

Of course, these devices, or the programs running on them, are not always running properly. Sometimes this is the user’s fault, for example, when he tries to go to a website, but misspells something, and accidentally goes to a website that does not exist. Or when he tries to log in, but accidentally misspells his password. Sometimes however, it is the fault of the people who have programmed this device or this app. Whatever it is, these things mean that it is time for an error. More often than not, however, errors are vague and it is unclear what’s going on, usually resulting in the user trying the same thing again, with the same result. Let me give you some examples, experienced by yours truly:

Examples of bad errors

Your device is offline

Today, for example, I tried logging into Windows on my laptop. I have Windows 8, and this means I have to log in with my Outlook account. It frequently happens that I enter my password and I get the error message that my laptop is offline. Excuse me? Offline? Why would you care, I’m just trying to sign in, a laptop should always work, whether it is connected to the internet or not. Usually, I just try signing in again, and it works. But a few weeks ago, when I got the same thing, I had to try signing in over 20 times before it actually worked, and that was where I decided to search for this error and see what was actually wrong.

of course, these things never happen when I need them. Therefore, I took this image from
of course, these things never happen when I need them. Therefore, I took this image from

It took me a few seconds of searching to discover that my laptop was not “offline” at all. The error “this laptop is offline” actually means that someone has been trying to sign in to your Outlook account without using the right password, resulting in your account being temporarily blocked. And now please note: an Outlook account is not the same as your laptop. The person trying to sign in has not touched your laptop and does not have any intentions to, he or she just wants to access your Outlook account, on, for whatever reason.

The infinite loading page

While waiting for my laptop to “not be offline anymore”, I grabbed my phone and opened a random application. I signed in, and waited. A loading page appeared, as usual, but did not disappear. I tried EVERYTHING in order to make it work again. I restarted my phone, restarted the app, reset my Wi-Fi, reset my GPS ( GPS was required for this app to work), and so on… Nothing worked, and I was at the verge of simply re-installing the app, knowing I would be losing all my data, until… I discovered the time and date on my phone were wrong. I had simply forgotten that I had removed the SIM-card and battery for a few seconds that morning, when I wanted to check what kind of SIM-card I have in my phone. After correcting the time and date, the application started, I signed in, and it was running smoothly.

The confirmation “number”

After I finally managed to sign in on my laptop, I decided to look up a bit of information about my flight, as I will be going to Russia in two weeks. I have never flown before, so it’s going to be one big mystery for me anyway. As I tried to view my reservation on the website of Aeroflot, my airline, the website asked me for my confirmation number and my last name. You would think it’s pretty clear:

Nothing to see here. Pretty clear.
Nothing to see here. Pretty clear.

A number, a last name. Obviously, I know my last name, so that wasn’t the problem. But I did not know my confirmation/reservation number. When I checked my e-mail for my booking confirmation (which should contain the Confirmation/Reservation number), I found six different numbers, with no explanation on which one to use and when. I tried them all, and neither of them worked. I received the following message:

Invalid. Alright, I didn't get six different numbers for nothing!
Invalid. Alright, I didn’t get six different numbers for nothing!

Fairly quickly, I got pissed, because none of the numbers worked. I decided to browse the website for a bit, and eventually stumbled upon the Check-in page.

A different page, yet asking for the same details.
A different page, yet asking for the same details.

Of course, I won’t be needing that until one day before leaving, but whatever, let’s try if one of the various numbers works here. They did not, but the error message I got, pretty much left me in tears and frustration.

Really? No, really?
Really? No, really?

Wow, what? Really? Why is it called a confirmation number, and why does this website make me assume it’s a number by putting “confirmation #” as a placeholder, when the “number”, in fact, only consists of letters? And why am I only getting this message on the Online Check-in page, and not on the main page?
My traveling agency got very lucky that it was around 3AM when I was looking for this “number”, otherwise I would have called them already, asking them about more details. They also got very lucky that I took the time to visit my booking page on their website, instead of just looking at my confirmation e-mail, because the “number” I needed was not even written in the e-mail.

Error codes

Sometimes (I promise, this is the last example), I’m actually getting a little detail about the error and what’s wrong, but not enough. Sometimes I’m turning on my TV and it doesn’t work, and it says something like “Error(542). Please try again later.”. What’s going on? It means I have to go to the website of my provider, look up the error and then find out what’s going on so I can fix it. I get it, you want people to visit your website, but this is not that user-friendly. Also, after looking it up, I found out it meant that one of my cables wasn’t plugged in, so what’s up with that “try again later”? If one of my cables isn’t plugged in, and I don’t know about it, it still won’t be plugged in when I “try again later”, resulting in the same error.

And so there are still numerous other examples of things users don’t understand, simply because the errors they get are too vague. For example: I think everyone has ever tried signing in on a website and just got a simple red bar with the text “Error”. Error what? Error-password-not-correct? Error-username-not-correct? Error-website-server-is-down-this-is-our-fault? Creating error messages is an art, one that is not to be underestimated.

Don’t make people feel stupid

By not creating specific error messages, you risk people moving away from your website. When users don’t get something, they tend to blame it on themselves, and think they’re stupid for not understanding the website. As you might know, people do not like feeling stupid, so they might just move away from your website and visit one that they do understand. Also, if people don’t know what’s wrong, they can’t fix it! And don’t come up with these stupid error codes either, because I am not going to look it up just to see what it means. If you are able to write a number after the error, thus creating a specific page for it, you should be able to write about what’s wrong, too.

Not only do you risk people moving away from your website, app or TV, for that matter, but you also risk people moving away and simply not coming back again. If your website is all about your photos and your photo gallery does not work, how are people supposed to know what’s going on? Is the gallery going to work if I refresh the page, or did you, the creator of the page, make a mistake in the code, meaning the gallery won’t work until you find that mistake and fix it? Has there even been a gallery? We don’t know.

So… what to do?

The solution? Create a specific error message, explaining why something isn’t working, how to solve it, and if the user is not to blame, tell them when it’s going to work again. A simple “Our sign-in system is down, we expect it to be up and running again within a few hours” will do. People know they can’t sign in, they know why, and they know when they are going to be able to sign in again. You might even want to add your phone number or e-mail address to the error message, so people can contact you in case of an emergency. That’s it! Many designers or programmers don’t seem to get this. So if you are a webdesigner, or just someone with your own website, make sure you create specific error messages so people know what’s going on. They will appreciate it.

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