Blog: Error messages need love, too

12th June 2014

Error messages are often forgotten during the content development process. They’re about as unsexy as a piece of content can be, so they’re usually found skulking in the corners of your user experience, showing up only when things go wrong.

Even the best experiences occasionally have problems. Making error messages clear, direct and actionable costs little, can prevent frustration and might even save your company time and money – instead of emailing or calling you, customers will have the tools to solve problems on their own.

Types of error messages

There are two main types of error messages that people encounter in an interface:

  • The customer did something wrong (also know as “we made something confusing”)
  • Something is broken (also known as “we did something wrong”)

Instead of thinking about the first type as “the customer did something wrong”, it’s helpful to shift your perspective to “something about the experience is confusing”. When people make mistakes in an interface, it’s usually because what’s expected of them is unclear.

If you can understand the error messages your customers are seeing the most, you can use that information to create a roadmap for improving your product’s design. If someone is always entering their credit card information the wrong way, or formatting their address incorrectly, it’s a very good sign that you should rethink your interface.

There’s no perfect interface. People will occasionally run into problems, no matter how talented you are. Thinking about how to turn the potentially negative experience into a positive, empowering interaction is a huge opportunity and can be surprisingly easy with a few improvements to how you write error messages.

 

Tip 1: Remove technical references and internal information

Generally when error messages are written using tech-speak or include logging information because they’re written to help developers instead of customers. But including this kind of information is embarrassing and communicates to your customers that you don’t care about their experience.

spotify-error-message

Above: Spotify error message, found on Error Wall of Shame

 

Above everything else, error messages should be helpful to your customers. They should use content that references terminology that’s consistent with what’s used in the rest of your interface and every word should work to help people understand what’s happened so they can resolve their problem.

I’d love to offer a good solution to the Spotify error message, but sadly I don’t understand it enough. If I had to guess, it seems like there was a problem updating Spotify and to fix it, the customer needs to reinstall the software. Assuming I’m right, I’d edit the error message to say something like this:

 

Try Installing Spotify Again
We had a technical problem because Spotify wasn’t properly installed on your computer.
To use Spotify, please try installing it again.

[Install Spotify]

 

Tip 2: Explain what’s happened as specifically as possible

I love to travel, but my least favorite part of the experience is anything that involves interacting with the airline. I get particularly nervous when I try to check in online within 24 hours of my flight, and I see a message like this one:

BA-error-message

This message has major potential to create unnecessary anxiety because it doesn’t explain what’s happened. Has the flight been cancelled? Is it overbooked? Is their website down? The result of this kind of message is often a call to the airline, which costs them money and wastes time.

The simpler and more pleasant solution, would be for British Airwa
ys to edit this message to include a reason and to show empathy. The last time I saw this message, it ended up being because British Airways were having trouble with their website and none of their customers could check in. Here’s a revision that offers more transparency that hopefully results in happier, more relaxed customers:

Sorry, but we’re having trouble with our website and online check-in isn’t available. Please try again in a few hours, or one of our staff will be happy to help you when you come to the airport for your flight.

Doesn’t that feel better?

 

Tip 3: Tell people how to fix the problem

Even if the solution seems obvious to you, it’s best to always err on the side of providing guidance. After all, the most important outcome of an error message is to help people resolve the issue they’re having.

Here’s an example of an error I often see in Microsoft Outlook:

outlook-error-message

 

Apart from not being very friendly, this error message doesn’t give me many options. Though I’m not going to stop using Outlook because it’s what my company uses, this kind of content makes me a begrudging user and can result in tweets like this one:

tweet-error-messages

 

 

Editing the error message to offer a next step and a helpful suggestion would make customers feel empowered and would give the sense that Microsoft cares. Here’s one possible solution:

You couldn’t reserve room 112.
It looks like that room can’t be reserved or isn’t available,
but here are a few other rooms you can book:

Room 114
Room 120

My recommendation requires some engineering work, which isn’t always possible. Here’s another potential solution that doesn’t require much more than a content update:

You couldn’t reserve room 112.
It looks like that room can’t be reserved or isn’t available.
To see which rooms are available:

–        Open your meeting invitation

–        Click on Scheduling Assistant

–        Look for available rooms that are labelled “Reservable”

<Learn more> in the Help Center.


Tip 4: Show care and concern

For some reason, companies sometimes see error messages as a great place to tell a joke or be snarky. Here’s an example from Tumblr:

tumble-error-message

Seeing an error instead on a missing page of a website can fill people with a range of feelings, none of them good. If someone doesn’t care about what they were trying to do, they’ll probably bounce to another service or website and they may never come back to yours. If they were trying to do something important, they may feel frustrated, upset and if they were relying on you for something, you may even put them at some risk.

It’s tone deaf to make jokes to people who are likely feeling frustrated or lost. Instead, be direct, explain what happened and offer an alternative path so people have something to do rather than going to another website.

 

Better error messages = better products

The actual experience of using your product or visiting your website is one of the most important opportunities to show customers that you care.

Whether you’re a writer, developer or CEO, if you’re creating content, you’ll make it better by consistently asking these two questions:

  • Would I actually say this out loud to someone?
  • How do I want people to feel when they see this?

Where error messages are concerned, even a little care goes a long way. It can make people love you, help you retain customers and even save you money and time because you’ll be providing people with the information and direction they need to solve problems when they encounter them.

Everyone makes mistakes. What matters is how you handle them.

 

amy thibodeauAmy Thibodeau is a writer and content strategist at Facebook. Before relocating to the London office in November, she managed the Facebook content strategy team that focuses on making interfaces for businesses easier to use and understand. Now she works on a range of different projects with an great team of UK-based product managers and engineers. 

In her spare time, Amy dabbles in photography, occasionally writes about language for The Guardian and collects ephemera on her blog. Before joining Facebook, she, travelled around the world for a year doing personal projects and consulting work through Contentini, a boutique web agency she co-founded.