errorErrors. They happen in our systems, they happen inside, outside, in the kitchen, the shed, the garden, in space, in a bed… and maybe I should stop there. At Helastel we work with software everyday, in an ideal world errors would be just some myth however this is just not reality. In this post we discuss errors in software and how to achieve error message joy!

Whose fault is it, anyway?

There are 3 main categories of error message and you can blame someone different for each one (tip – blaming anyone isn’t the name of this game, especially when some errors will fit into category 1) :

1) Shoot, it’s because I / we made a mistake.

2) An external system (that your system depends on) failed.

3) User error (and not just ‘oh yeah, it must be user error’ I mean, yes, it really was the user at fault.

What’s the big deal?

Whichever area the error falls into, it will have a substantial impact on the way someone experiences your software. In a few short seconds, the impact of that little message could be the difference between someone using your software for years to come, or getting so frustrated that they look for alternatives.

“In software, believe it or not, it really is easy to mitigate the friction an error can create and even alleviate it altogether”


Nobody expects you to create a complex piece of software that never throws up any errors at all. There’s always potential for things to go awry, so the key is in how you prepare for that eventuality and make it as good an experience as possible for your users.

Software and mullets – all can be forgiven

for-rzzl-by-robYour best friend has asked you to take their son to the hairdressers in time for a party the next day, but you get there late and it’s closed. You consider your options – maybe you could find another hairdressers that’s open late? Maybe you could do it yourself? You’re pretty nifty with a pair of scissors after all…

Think you can find an easy way out of this little mess with your friendship still in tact?

What would you say if I told you that an error on the same par as this in your software, could actually gain you kudos and potentially turn into a moment of joy?

In software, believe it or not, it really is easy to mitigate the friction an error can create and even alleviate it altogether.

The issue is that a lot of software developers either pay insufficient attention to the UX of their error messages or they just don’t judge it right. [Image credit: Rob!]

Three steps to error message joy

Well, joy is a strong word here but what’s the first thing you can do to lighten the blow of an error?

  1. Clarity

Make it clear. Basically, it should tell you in plain English (assuming this is software targeted at English-speaking people) what the issue is, and why it is occurring.

9 times out of 10 (based on the made-up stat library in my brain), not knowing why there is an error is more annoying than having the reason:


Ah… there was a system error. It’s something to do with the file specification I guess. Does it mean I did something wrong? Will it work if I try again? Who knows…

Wouldn’t it be much better if it clearly explained what was going wrong in a polite and friendly message? Why not tell the user how to recover from the problem? Although this may mitigate some of the annoyance I’m still not at that point of ‘joy’.

  1. Humour


If you didn’t laugh then what’s wrong with you? For those of you that did, you can see that a bit of humour can go a long way.

“Finding a humorous error message softens the blow and can create a positive talking point out of something that would normally be considered a bad thing”


It is also a key to flipping an error on it’s head if used correctly. There are 2 types of humorous error. One type makes you look good and one makes you or your company look very bad.

Let’s have a look at both types. This first one, although funny is more ‘laughing at you’ than ‘laughing with you’ (read to the bottom):


And this, well this is beyond belief:


How about some examples of error messages that use humour to make a negative thing become a moment of joy and topic of conversation? These are a couple of my favourites, that I’m sure have prevented a few from becoming annoyed and instead made them smile.

Gmail: when you type 2 or more consecutive full stops

Youtube: when you come across an internal server error

Finding an error message like this softens the blow and can create a positive talking point out of something that would normally be considered a bad thing.

Although humour may be good in some instances, you still need to be careful. It’s not always appropriate.

If the error was a 404 or a basic validation error then pack in the humour.

Imagine, however, that you have just lost a day’s worth of work. A picture of a fat cat and a message saying ‘Whoops, we’ve lost all your work. Meow!’ is not going to do the trick.

  1. Empathy

Even when using humour, a clear message and an apology for the issue are still de rigeur. Not all apologies are made equal though and “we apologise for any inconvenience” just doesn’t cut the mustard sometimes.

“By preventing any negative reactions and frustration and throwing in a little fun, you can keep your users coming back”


As stupid as it sounds that a piece of software can empathise with a human, you can’t get around the fact that it’s humans who both make and use the software.

So if you can fully empathise with how the user might react when something specific goes wrong, all you need to do is write something that would soften the blow if you were actually having a conversation with them.

When used with appropriate humour and a large dose of clarity, this is what can really make the difference between users sticking with your software or jumping ship.

In Summary

In an ideal world, errors and error messages would be just some myth passed down from older generations and all our users would ride to work on unicorns.

I’m afraid that this is just not reality. You will always come up against errors, and there will always be error messages. By preventing any negative reactions and frustration and throwing in a little fun, you can make the very best of the fallible nature of software and keep your users coming back.

helastelHelastel are software specialists who offer a commitment to achieving your security and compliance requirements side-by-side with highly qualified specialists in cybersecurity and intellectual property law.