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Self-Deprecating Error Messages

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Error messages should always put the blame squarely on the shoulders of the site’s owners and not on those of the visitor.

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Self-deprecating or just cute?

Contents

Problem

Error messages written in a negative or even neutral tone can sound accusatory, suggesting that the visitor has misread instructions, filled out a form incorrectly, or otherwise screwed up. Being blamed for an error by a computer is offputting.

Context

Use this pattern when writing the copy for error messages at your site. You were planning to write those messages, right? You weren’t going to forget about them (yielding helpful dialog boxes that say something like “Error 41”), right? You weren’t going to expect your engineers to write them were you (yielding helpful dialog boxes that say something like “Error 41: Error 41 has occurred”), were you?

Solution

Writing in a conversational tone, explain to the extent possible what has gone wrong, why, and what to do next, if anything. Be sure to express the error in terms of a failure on the part of the system. Even if the cause of the error is the user’s failure to comply with an instruction, assume that the instructions were unclear or that the entry form didn’t provide sufficient guidance.

Don’t blame the user for the error. Take the blame, apologize, and move forward.

Special Cases

Saying “Oops” is one way to mimic a very human way of noticing a problem and taking responsibility at the same time. However, as Bill Cosby once joked, you never want to hear your surgeon say “Oops.” It's equally true that for sites dealing with sensitive personal information or circumstances (such as, for example, medical or financial contexts), a more formal tone may be appropriate to avoid the appearance of an insensitive flippancy. Even in a formal or sensitive situation, it's equally important to avoid blaming the victim when a problem occurs.

Examples

GetSatisfaction.com takes responsibility ("We couldn't find it") when a search turns up no results.

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Get Satisfaction doesn't make the user feel bad when a search fails.

Likewise, Twitter (see above) takes the blame for a failed search, makes light of the problem with a LOLcat image, and offers some links to help the user proceed.