Error Messages: Mistakes to Avoid

Try to avoid the following:

  • Anthropomorphize. Don’t suggest the software has feelings or thoughts, for example, the PC died. Instead, say, it stopped responding or is not available.
  • Blame. Maybe the user was at fault, for example, entered text into a field meant for numbers. However, instead of saying this was wrong, bad, or illegal, state that this field only takes numbers and encourage them to try again.
  • Cryptic numbers. Error message 724ABC may mean something to the programmer but nothing to the user. In this case, refine the error messages to help the user, not the QA team debugging the application.
  • Generic ‘catch-all’ messages. Determine the cause of the error and create an appropriate error message.
  • Jargon. What does ‘syntax error’ mean?
  • Jokes. Avoid. Not the time to be funny. People are frustrated.
  • Negative phrasing, such as wrong, bad, invalid, and illegal.
  • Using Red to indicate an error. Doesn’t help color-blind users or if printed out.
  • Slang or abbreviations.
  • Terms that may be offensive in certain cultures.
  • The word error in the title bar.

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How to Improve Error Messages

Ask yourself: how can I help the user solve their problem as painlessly as possibly?

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One problem with most error messages is that while they indicate that an error has occurred, they don’t mention what steps the user should take to a) avoid this happening again and b) resolve the current issue.

· Rewrite temporary error messages written during testing. Examples of these might refer to null pointer errors or issues with the class, objects, or interfaces in the code. None of this should be displayed to users when the product is finally released.

· Many error message leave the user in a type of limbo unsure what caused the issue and, for example, how to recover data they may have lost if the system crashed.

· If possible, create links to FAQ pages where users can learn more, download the necessary patches, or contact support.

· Get the technical writer to write and enhance the messages. If you’ve no tech writers on your team, assign them to the person with the best writing skills.