Error Messages: Greater Detail for the Greater Good


By Joe Baz

“This error might be a result of your username or password.” How many times have you experienced this error message? How many times have you played the frustrating guessing game of “which is it? My username? My password? Both?”

Don’t Be Vague with Error Messages

This morning I played the guessing game on Mass.gov. When I arrived at the website, I was presented with four fields to fill out: My username, password, EIN and SSN. In my opinion, this was not a terribly difficult form. But low and behold, I received the dreaded error message:

“An unexpected system error has occurred. We may be experiencing system problems. Please try back later. We apologize for any inconvenience this may have caused.”

Having worked in the software industry for many years, I know a bad coding practice when I see one. This message is a “lazy coders catch all” for mistakes. Instead of writing the software to display a unique message for each type of problem, they use a generic message for all site problems. The result: Poor user experience and increased customer service costs. (As proof, I called them numerous times after receiving the error message.)

What can Mass.gov do to improve the user experience?

  1. Talk to customer service reps and baseline the Call Center metrics.
  2. Write detailed messages for each use case. (Here are some good error message examples.)
  3. Implement analytics, such as Google Analytics, to monitor errors encountered and review the data on a periodic basis to identify areas in the website that are causing the most pain.
  4. Rinse and repeat.

In short, don’t sweep your error messages under the rug. It only takes one non-helpful error message to drive a client away from your website or application.  For anyone banking on a website to increase revenue or to decrease operational costs,  the user’s experience with error messages is one area that undeniably needs attention.

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