Error, Error on the Wall …

Erin Anderson

We all make mistakes. When we make them online or while using technology, the consequences are (usually) fairly unremarkable. Too bad the alarmists who write error messages still haven’t gotten the memo.

As proof, I’d like to share a few recent error message sightings:

PC "formatting" error pop-up

‍This little gem occasionally rears its ugly head on my laptop.

To be fair, I am the scourge of technology. But this message gives me no clue as to what I might have done (this time) to warrant an on-screen scolding. Or how I might set things right.

In fact, the only choice I have is to click OK and thereby accept my "general failure." (Again.) I do so with a deep sigh and a heavy heart. And then I move on to render useless another electronic device with my mere presence.

Error icon for a brain pacemaker programming device

This startling illustration, accompanied by an impressive string of gibberish, appears when a neurologist makes a "handling error."

Is it just me, or does it seem unwise to subject a brain surgeon to unnecessary distress over vague and melodramatic messaging? (That's a rhetorical question.)

E-commerce message from a forward-thinking fashion retailer

As you can imagine, I sigh (with relief, this time) when an application or website delivers an error message that helps me quickly understand what went wrong and how to fix it. To wit:

Say you've finally decided to get that dreamy Anthropologie cowlneck dress. You’re so excited you move to click "Add to Bag" before selecting your size. It can happen to anyone. But does spew a generic and incomprehensible 404* at you?  

Heavens, no. Their solution is elegant as an embroidery motif cardigan in citron and coriander. "Please select a size," urges the articulate error message. (That wasn’t so difficult, now, was it?)

Here's why this error message copy (and design) works.

The message:

  1.  Lets you know there's a problem
  2.  Gets specific about what that problem is (you've neglected to choose your dress size)
  3.  Tells you in plain language how you can solve the problem (select a size, already!)
  4.  Respects your intelligence by avoiding words like FAILURE, FATAL or ERROR
  5.  Appears in lovely rust-colored text rather than four-alarm red to prevent grade-school exam      flashbacks  
  6.  Uses a no-nonsense period rather than an anxiety-inducing exclamation point
  7.  Guides you quickly to the next step in the process (and ultimately to retail bliss)

On top of everything, that message materializes when your cursor lands anywhere near "Add to Bag" territory. You never waste a single click. Brilliant.

Want more? Check out this awesome collection of smartypants 404 messages culled by Italian web designer Francesco Mugnai.