B.I.S.S Research White Papers

The Art and Science of Designing System Error Messages

Priyanka Naik

Priyanka Naik

I'm a multi-disciplinary practitioner in the Banking and Financial Technology space. Backed by a blend of robust technical background and acquired competencies in the BFSI domain.
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin
Share on facebook
Consider a general transaction workflow in any of the standalone applications that you use. Chances are, you might stumble upon at least a few errors before completing the transaction successfully.

The purpose of an error message is to notify users of certain unexpected or unwarranted outcomes. While they serve to guide users by relaying important warnings, the manner in which they’re framed or worded can have a practical bearing on the way the user “feels” about the system. This is not to undermine the importance of functionality, usability or the core services offered by the system, but to highlight that something even as insipid as system error messages can influence how the user experiences the system. And the emotional connection that the user feels to it, will most likely dominate his/her overall opinion about it!

It is for this reason, that we need to contemplate well before coming up with an appropriate error message for a given scenario. Every error, regardless of who is to blame, can become a point of friction for the users. An ill-constructed error message can fill users with frustration, and send them packing. On the other hand, a well-crafted error message can do wonders – turn a moment of frustration into a moment of delight!

So how do we compose, write or rewrite error messages – to keep the users on track? We just need to remember some golden rules:

1. Be specific about the error: Error messages serve best when they are absolutely specific. More so, this is applicable for pages requiring large inputs – where it’s usually unnerving for the users to identify which input needs a correction.

2. Avoid negative undertones: The choice of words you make add up to the tone of your communication. And when you consistently choose negative words, the messages will sound terse, condescending, or angry.

3. Show more Empathy: A little empathy in dealing never killed anyone.

4. Add a dash of humour: A short sprinkling of humour is often a great way to diffuse the frustration of an error. Keeping your tone light-hearted can help to keep the user on-side—especially if this suits the tone of your brand. Something like this..

5. Thoughtful response buttons: Consider this message: “File could not be saved” and an OK button.

The “OK” button here might sound offending. Like “You just lost your work, OK”. In most cases of close-ended errors, “Close” is the most appropriate response button.

In Summary

In an ideal world, we’d have no error messages. Users would happily navigate through the application, error free. Unfortunately, we don’t live in that ideal world. Errors will always be there, and subsequently the error messages.

Though it’s always advisable to prevent errors from happening, it helps to be armed for occurrences of error. And use them to turn that moment of friction into an opportunity for lead conversion.

To err is human, to display a proper error message is divine!

Recommended Reads:

  1. Positivity in Usability
  2. Designing Web Usability
  3. Design Applications Workbook
  4. Usable Usability: Simple Steps for Making Stuff Better
  5. Universal Design for Web Applications That Reach Everyone
Priyanka Naik

Priyanka Naik

I'm a multi-disciplinary practitioner in the Banking and Financial Technology space. Backed by a blend of robust technical background and acquired competencies in the BFSI domain.
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin
Share on facebook