TweetFollow Us on Twitter

Dec 01 Cover Story

Volume Number: 17 (2001)
Issue Number: 12
Column Tag: Cover Story

by G.D. Warner

Error Messages: The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly

Writing Error Messages That Don’t Make Your Users Feel Stupid

“You are in error. You are a biological unit. You are imperfect.”

As error messages go, that quote from the original Star Trek episode, “The Changeling” is — well, actually kinda scary, considering what happened in that episode (Nomad, remember? A small robot that destroyed planets for fun — because that planet’s inhabitants were, in Nomad,’s “eyes,” imperfect).

While I’m sure RB developers don’t write error messages like that — and, coupled with REAL Software’s failure to insert a “Smite” command into the IDE makes carrying out the implied threat difficult, at best — I wanted to take this opportunity to run through, as the title says, ‘The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly’ of error messages.

The British magazine, MacFormat (which some would say is the British version of MacAddict, though in fact the reverse is true) has a section devoted to bad error messages, entitled “Silly Things Your Mac Says.” Alas, MacFormat’s web presence (http://www.macformat.co.uk) is not quite as strong as that of MacAddict’s (http://www.macaddict.com), so I’m afraid I can’t refer you to a page to view them all. Sorry abut that!

(Initiate Twilight Zone mode: que creepy music, Dim Rod Serling voice as True:)

Consider, if you will, the typical new computer user. S/he has just enrolled in the Computers For Dummies class at her local community college — using Windows ‘00 (pronounced “uh-oh,” in case you were wondering) as the Training Platform of Choice. Everything goes well in the class that first week (remember, we’re using our imaginations, here), and our new computer user finishes that first week, and goes out and buys her own computer.

And gets her first error message. The horror begins (see Figure 1).


Figure 1. Thanks a Lot (End Twilight Zone mode).

Alan Cooper, in his book About Face: The Essentials of User Interface Design, writes: “This is what all error messages feel like to users… No matter how nicely your error messages are worded, this is how they will be interpreted.”

But what makes a good error message?

The Microsoft Manual of Style, Second Edition, provides pointers for writing error messages:

“When you write error messages, use the passive voice to describe the error, and, if necessary, the third person (refer to ‘he computer’ or ‘the program’). You can also blame the product. Addressing the user directly as ‘you’ may imply that the user caused the problem. Try to make error messages friendly, direct, and helpful.”

Apple’s Aqua Human Interface Guidelines tells us:

“A good alert message states clearly what caused the alert to appear and what the user can do about it. Express everything in the user’s vocabulary.”

This is good advice … but Alan Cooper says it a bit better:

“Don’t make the user look stupid.”

Mr. Cooper later provides another interesting example of how error messages shouldn’t be written, reproduced here as Figure 2:


Figure 2. What the —!?

What would go through your mind if the above error message were to show up on your screen? Probably something similar to what Mr. Cooper wrote:

“Thank you so much for sharing that pithy observation with us. Why didn’t you notify the library? What did you want to notify it about? Why are you telling me? What do I care? Maybe you’d like to comment on what I’m wearing, too? And besides, what am I ‘OK’ing? It is not OK with me that this failure occurred!”

Couldn’t have said it better myself.

To reiterate Apple’s recommendations:

  • Tell the user what happened
  • Tell the user how to fix whatever is wrong
  • Tell the user what happened in their own vocabulary

This last one is particularly important: if your error message says something like “PrntSvrErr in Serial/USB port,” your user is most likely going to be confused by “PrntSvrErr.” Why not simply write “Printer Server Error,” if indeed that’s what it means?

The Good

There aren’t a lot of good examples out there… but I did find a few that come close. Take Figure 3 for example:


Figure 3. Example of a Good Error message.

This error message follows the basic guidelines of a good error message:

It tells the user what’s wrong (more or less)

It offers a fix

It delivers its message in plain language Figure 4, from Apple’s Aqua Human Interface Guidelines gets the job done:


Figure 4. Another Good Error Message.

It tells the user what’s wrong — and why

It offers not one, but two possible fixes

It delivers its message in plain language

The error message shown in Figure 5 seems to have done it correctly:


Figure 5. Another Good Error Message.
  • It tells the user what’s wrong — and why
  • It offers not one, not two, but three possible fixes — and includes a phone number for Tech Support
  • It delivers its message in plain language

By all rights, this should be the best of the best — but my technical writer instincts tell me it’s far too wordy. A user faced with this error message would most likely not bother to read it (“Too much information, too much information!”), then just click OK.

The Bad

It’s far easier to find examples of bad error messages than good ones… and a lot more fun! So here we go. Figure 6 is from an early version of Netscape:


Figure 6. Bad Error, Netscape Style.

In his article “Why You Can’t Run Java,” Mark Hurst said…well, basically he said that this error message might be difficult for most users to understand (yeah… that’s it!).

Another, shall we say, somewhat-less-than-useful error message is shown in Figure 7:


Figure 7. Really Bad Error Message.

I wonder what happened here? — Oh, yeah. “Some sort of error.” Obviously.

You’ve probably seen or heard about the e-mail that circulated some time back with error messages written in Haiku, the ancient Japanese form of poetry. For those of you who don’t know (or dozed off a lot during the poetry section of your English classes), Haiku has only three rules:

Three lines only

First and last lines are to be no more than three syllables

Second line consists of no more than seven syllables

Here’s one:

Three things are certain:
Death, taxes, and lost data.
Guess which has occurred.

I’ve placed the URL in the Reference section so you can read the rest… but if you can’t wait, fire up a computer running the BeOS, load up Be’s web browser, NetPositive, and type in a URL without being connected to a network … and see what you get.

Hopefully, you’ll get something like Figure 8:


Figure 8. NetPositive Haiku.

Uh-oh… I feel inspiration beating me about the head and shoulders!

In NetPositive
It is quite easy to find
Poetic Errors

(Sorry about that.)

Someone who identifies himself as “Johnnie Favorite” or “Happy Mega Fighting Man,” and a former Be employee tells me this feature can be turned off in one of the NetPositive settings.

I’ll get to that … one of these days.

Not to be outdone, a few Apple developers at Dantz have written a few of these (at least for early versions of the Retrospect manual) as shown in Figure 9 (thanks to ResExcellence.com):


Figure 9. Dantz Retrospect’s Haiku Error Message.

The Ugly

Not a lot of screenshots for this category, as some of these are Unix/Linux error messages, passed on by Word of Mouth. My favorite:

Printer on fire. See the Reference section for a link for more info on this one…

A close second, from Linux fsck (the Linux version of “Scandisk”):

“Either there is a bug in fsck or some bonehead (you!) is checking a live filesystem. Please report bugs in fsck to .”

‘Tacit’ writes in comp.lang.basic.realbasic:

“For the worst error messages ever written by God or man, I suggest you take a look at Windows 2000. It has some error messages you absolutely will not believe.

‘Attempt to propogate SUIDs across Active Directory failed with code 1602.’

“In English, this means: ‘You have special permissions set for a user who does not exist.’”

Interesting . . .

This error message uses error codes. Opinions on these are mixed: Some like them, some hate them… but they do have their uses.

Using that error code, a developer can track the number of times a particular error is displayed, compare it to other errors that report error codes, and from there decide which one to fix first.

MT-NewsWatcher uses similar error codes in some of its error messages, as shown in Figure 10:


Figure 10. MT-NewsWatcher Error with Error Code.

Tool Tips, the Balloon Help on the Windows side of things, is also something one needs to be careful of. The tool tip shown in Figure 11 cost a developer his job:


Figure 11. One Way Ticket Out the Door for this developer.

Here’s an interesting one, from Free Java:


Figure 12. Let’s Get Biblical.

I wonder if Free Java has a ‘Smite’ command…? Hmmmm …

And then, of course, there’s these:


Figure 13. Dude! (Welcome).


Figure 14. Dude —! (Okay).


Figure 15. Dude —! (Toast).

While it is true that a skilled linguist could probably differentiate between “Dude—!” as an expression of agreement, and “Dude—!” as a warning message, relying on this ability for your error messages is probably not a good idea … so the less said about the “Dude” family of error messages, the better.

In fact, forget I mentioned it, okay?

Okay. So What?

Good question. How about this quote:

“Nothing says more about what you think of your users than error messages.”

This quote, from Scott Berkun’s article, “The Web Shouldn’t be a Comedy of Errors,” really says it all. If it doesn’t ‘say it all’ to you, he follows up with a discussion of some excellent software engineering ideas on handling errors (see Scott Berkun in the Reference section … and take another look at Figure 11).

Like in one of the Karate Kid movies (“Kid? I’m thirty-five!”), when Mr. Miyagi describes the best way to block a punch by the ‘simple’ method of “No be there when punch arrive,” Scott’s article recommends designing your program so that it has fewer chances for your users to require an error message.

Chuck Martin, a posting to the Tech Writer’s list agrees. “…design, as much as possible, the interface so users can’t make errors, or at least will have a more difficult time making errors.”

For instance, a field that requires numerical input should screen out alphabetical characters, as illustrated in this code snippet (KeyDown event of an Edit field):

Listing 1: ASCII Only, Please

Disables non-numerical keystrokes in an edit field.

Function KeyDown(Key As String) As Boolean
 If (ASC(key) < 48) Or (ASC(key) > 57) Then
  If (ASC(key) = 8) Or ((ASC(key) >= 28) And (Asc(key) <= 31)) Then
   Return False
  Else
   Return True
  End If
 Else
  Return False
 End If
End Function

This kills the need for an error message that reads “Dumbkopf! Numbers ONLY in this field!” or something similar.

Another thing to consider (with some applications, anyway): disabling the ‘Okay’ or ‘Submit’ button until all required fields are filled in. This avoids the “You idiot! You forgot to type in your fax number!” error message — when your user doesn’t have a fax number to enter, and simply hits the Okay button, thinking s/he’s finished entering data.

Robert Heath, another member of the Tech Writer’s list (see the Reference section) says, “My own peeve is messages with exclamation points. ‘You must enter a date!,’ etc.

Wrapping Up

In this article, we’ve taken a look at what makes a good error message, what makes a bad error message, touched on some ‘ugly’ error messages, skimmed the surface of software design methodology, and dipped a metaphorical toe into the waters of user interface design. Hopefully, we’ve all learned something along the way… but there’s only one way to be sure! A quiz. Your question — for the grand prize of a bag of pre-cooked microwave popcorn, mailed to your house by our own managing editor, Jessica Stubblefield (first come, first served, no guarantees on how well cooked the popcorn will be):

If your user is trying to print but can’t, is it better to display an error message that reads —

A. “Failed to initialize printer port [OK},”
B. “Having trouble printing. Ensure the printer is connected to your computer and that the power cord is securely connected and press the ‘Retry’ button. {Retry} {Cancel}”

“Printer on fire! Get out now!! {Okay}”

“DUDE!!! {Okay}”

If you answered A, congratulations! Your users will hate you, and you are well on your way to becoming as infamous as the person that wrote that immortal phrase, “Someone put us the bomb.” Or perhaps the other immortal phrase, “All your base are belong to us.”

If you answered B, congratulations! Your users will love you, and actually pay for your shareware.

If you answered C, congratulations! You’re doomed to a lifetime of answering the telephone support lines for the software you wrote, which caused the printer to catch fire in the first place. Your days will be long (15 hours!) and you’ll only get minimum wage — unlike your fellow tech support-folk, who support applications written by the guy whose error messages read like those in answer B. These guys get more money because their developer gets paid for his software.

If you answered D … um … well, the less said about that the better!

You’re educated
Put away this magazine
And go code something.

Heh.

Bibliography and References

Haiku Error Messages:

“Printer On Fire” Error Messages:

‘Linux FSCK’ Error Message:

Just For Laughs . . .


G.D. Warner is a technical writer, a Web-Dev Ninja-In-Training, and resides in Seattle, where the Shadow of Redmond looms long and large. He can be reached at gdwarner@mac.com.

 

Community Search:
MacTech Search:

Software Updates via MacUpdate

HandBrake 1.0.2 - Versatile video encode...
HandBrake is a tool for converting video from nearly any format to a selection of modern, widely supported codecs. Features Supported Sources VIDEO_TS folder, DVD image or real DVD (unencrypted... Read more
PhotoDesk 4.1.5 - Instagram client for p...
PhotoDesk lets you view, like, comment, and download Instagram pictures/videos. (NO Uploads! / Image Posting! Instagram forbids that! AND you need an existing Instagram account). But you can do so... Read more
Sound Studio 4.8.6 - Robust audio record...
Sound Studio lets you easily record and professionally edit audio on your Mac. Easily rip vinyls and digitize cassette tapes, or record lectures and voice memos. Prepare for live shows with live... Read more
Capo 3.5.1 - Slow down and learn to play...
Capo lets you slow down your favorite songs so you can hear the notes and learn how they are played. With Capo, you can quickly tab out your songs atop a highly-detailed OpenCL-powered spectrogram... Read more
Google Earth 7.1.8.3036 - View and contr...
Google Earth gives you a wealth of imagery and geographic information. Explore destinations like Maui and Paris, or browse content from Wikipedia, National Geographic, and more. Google Earth combines... Read more
QuickBooks 16.1.11.1556 R12 - Financial...
QuickBooks helps you manage your business easily and efficiently. Organize your finances all in one place, track money going in and out of your business, and spot areas where you can save. Built for... Read more
Google Earth 7.1.8.3036 - View and contr...
Google Earth gives you a wealth of imagery and geographic information. Explore destinations like Maui and Paris, or browse content from Wikipedia, National Geographic, and more. Google Earth combines... Read more
QuickBooks 16.1.11.1556 R12 - Financial...
QuickBooks helps you manage your business easily and efficiently. Organize your finances all in one place, track money going in and out of your business, and spot areas where you can save. Built for... Read more
FileZilla 3.24.0 - Fast and reliable FTP...
FileZilla (ported from Windows) is a fast and reliable FTP client and server with lots of useful features and an intuitive interface. Version 3.24.0: New The context menu for remote file search... Read more
Bookends 12.7.8 - Reference management a...
Bookends is a full-featured bibliography/reference and information-management system for students and professionals. Bookends uses the cloud to sync reference libraries on all the Macs you use.... Read more

Super Mario Run dashes onto Android in M...
Super Mario Run was one of the biggest mobile launches in 2016 before it was met with a lukewarm response by many. While the game itself plays a treat, it's pretty hard to swallow the steep price for the full game. With that said, Android users... | Read more »
WarFriends Beginner's Guide: How to...
Chillingo's new game, WarFriends, is finally available world wide, and so far it's a refreshing change from common mobile game trends. The game's a mix of tower defense, third person shooter, and collectible card game. There's a lot to unpack here... | Read more »
Super Gridland (Entertainment)
Super Gridland 1.0 Device: iOS Universal Category: Entertainment Price: $1.99, Version: 1.0 (iTunes) Description: Match. Build. Survive. "exquisitely tuned" - Rock Paper Shotgun No in-app purches, and no ads! | Read more »
Red's Kingdom (Games)
Red's Kingdom 1.0 Device: iOS Universal Category: Games Price: $4.99, Version: 1.0 (iTunes) Description: Mad King Mac has kidnapped your father and stolen your golden nut! Solve puzzles and battle goons as you explore and battle your... | Read more »
Turbo League Guide: How to tame the cont...
| Read more »
Fire Emblem: Heroes coming to Google Pla...
Nintendo gave us our first look at Fire Emblem: Heroes, the upcoming mobile Fire Emblem game the company hinted at last year. Revealed at the Fire Emblem Direct event held today, the game will condense the series' tactical RPG combat into bite-... | Read more »
ReSlice (Music)
ReSlice 1.0 Device: iOS Universal Category: Music Price: $9.99, Version: 1.0 (iTunes) Description: Audio Slice Machine Slice your audio samples with ReSlice and create flexible musical atoms which can be triggered by MIDI notes or... | Read more »
Stickman Surfer rides in with the tide t...
Stickson is back and this time he's taken up yet another extreme sport - surfing. Stickman Surfer is out this Thursday on both iOS and Android, so if you've been following the other Stickman adventures, you might be interested in picking this one... | Read more »
Z-Exemplar (Games)
Z-Exemplar 1.4 Device: iOS Universal Category: Games Price: $3.99, Version: 1.4 (iTunes) Description: | Read more »
5 dastardly difficult roguelikes like th...
Edmund McMillen's popular roguelike creation The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth has finally crawled onto mobile devices. It's a grotesque dual-stick shooter that tosses you into an endless, procedurally generated basement as you, the pitiable Isaac,... | Read more »

Price Scanner via MacPrices.net

12-inch 1.2GHz Space Gray Retina MacBook on s...
Amazon has the 2016 12″ 1.2GHz/512GB Space Gray Retina MacBook (Apple model #MLH82LL/A) on sale for $1299.99 including free shipping. Their price is $300 off MSRP. Read more
Twelve South Releases RelaxedLeather Cases fo...
Inspired by the laid-back luxury of burnished leather boots and crafted in rich tones of taupe, herb and marsala, RelaxedLeather cases deliver smart, easy protection for the iPhone 7. Each genuine... Read more
Week’s Best Deal: New 2016 13-inch 2.0GHz Mac...
Amazon has the new 2016 13″ 2.0GHz non-Touch Bar MacBook Pros on sale for a limited time for $225 off MSRP including free shipping: - 13″ 2.0GHz MacBook Pro, Space Gray (MLL42LL/A): $1274.99 $225 off... Read more
Back in stock: Apple refurbished Mac minis fr...
Apple has Certified Refurbished Mac minis available starting at $419. Apple’s one-year warranty is included with each mini, and shipping is free: - 1.4GHz Mac mini: $419 $80 off MSRP - 2.6GHz Mac... Read more
Apple Ranked ‘Most Intimate Brand’
The top ranked ‘”intimate” brands continued to outperform the S&P and Fortune 500 indices in revenue and profit over the past 10 years, according to MBLM’s Brand Intimacy 2017 Report, the largest... Read more
B-Eng introduces SSD Health Check for Mac OS
Fehraltorf, Switzerland based independant Swiss company- B-Eng has announced the release and immediate availability of SSD Health Check 1.0, the company’s new hard drive utility for Mac OS X. As the... Read more
Apple’s Education discount saves up to $300 o...
Purchase a new Mac or iPad using Apple’s Education Store and take up to $300 off MSRP. All teachers, students, and staff of any educational institution qualify for the discount. Shipping is free: -... Read more
4-core 3.7GHz Mac Pro on sale for $2290, save...
Guitar Center has the 3.7GHz 4-core Mac Pro (MD253LL/A) on sale for $2289.97 including free shipping or free local store pickup (if available). Their price is a $710 savings over standard MSRP for... Read more
128GB Apple iPad Air 2, refurbished, availabl...
Apple has Certified Refurbished 128GB iPad Air 2s WiFis available for $419 including free shipping. That’s an $80 savings over standard MSRP for this model. A standard Apple one-year warranty is... Read more
13-inch 2.7GHz Retina MacBook Pro on sale for...
B&H Photo has the 2015 13″ 2.7GHz/128GB Retina Apple MacBook Pro on sale for $100 off MSRP. Shipping is free, and B&H charges NY tax only: - 13″ 2.7GHz/128GB Retina MacBook Pro (MF839LL/A): $... Read more

Jobs Board

*Apple* macOS Systems Integration Administra...
…most exceptional support available in the industry. SCI is seeking an Junior Apple macOS systems integration administrator that will be responsible for providing Read more
*Apple* Retail - Multiple Positions- Deer Pa...
Job Description: Sales Specialist - Retail Customer Service and Sales Transform Apple Store visitors into loyal Apple customers. When customers enter the store, Read more
*Apple* Retail - Multiple Positions - Apple,...
Job Description: Sales Specialist - Retail Customer Service and Sales Transform Apple Store visitors into loyal Apple customers. When customers enter the store, Read more
*Apple* Technician - nfrastructure (United S...
Let’s Work Together Apple Technician This position is based in Portland, ME Life at nfrastructure At nfrastructure, we understand that our success results from our Read more
*Apple* Mobile Master - Best Buy (United Sta...
**467692BR** **Job Title:** Apple Mobile Master **Location Number:** 000602-Columbia MO-Store **Job Description:** **What does a Best Buy Apple Mobile Master Read more
All contents are Copyright 1984-2011 by Xplain Corporation. All rights reserved. Theme designed by Icreon.