Error Message Rogues Gallery
Here’s a rogues gallery of terrible error messages I’ve encountered personally; along with what the programmers and designers should do to fix them.
I’ve been saving this screenshot for years (To be exact, since January 10, 2000):
An unexpected error occurred, because it cannot be found.
Seriously, WTF? This is one of the best (worst?) examples of bad copy I’ve ever run across. It is perplexing, it is uninformative, and it’s longer then it needs to be — unless there are other kinds of errors then “unexpected” ones.
It is how Mac OS 9 would complain if you tried to open an alias that pointed to a file that could not be found.
Please quit iTunes before continuing with this update.
Two things are wrong here. First there is no way to cancel or defer the installation. Click “Continue”, and you are bludgened again and again with this message until you submit. Very unfriendly.
Secondly, the installer can and should do this for you. Instead of reading “Continue”, the button should read “Quit iTunes”, and hitting it should tell iTunes to quit. Asking programs to quit is a solved problem. It has been a solved problem for decades. It happens every single time every single Mac is shut down.
Dialogs should never force the user to do work that the program can do.
I use SBC DSL at my apartment. When it has problems, which it frequently does, it takes you to a webpage that displays an error message. So far so good. But when everything starts working again, it hijacks the next URL you try to load and takes you to this error message instead (note that hitting back or reload won’t give you the webpage you were trying to get to):
(*SBC logo*) Gateway Alert Notification
(*Error Logo*) Success
The error has been successfully resolved. Please close down your browser and restart it to continue browsing online.
(If you have the same router I do, you can see the error message here).
Lot’s of problems I’ll address them in order of severity.
Despite what the message says, you do not need to restart anything. The next page you load will get to you just fine. This is a horrible legal-department-inspired cop-out that ends up giving bad advice. Error messages should never give incorrect advice. It’s better have an uninformative message, then to tell the user to do something wrong, which will compound their problems ( that leads to disaster.)
Displaying this message eats the URL you were trying to load, and there is no way to get it back. “Reload” just reloads the static message.
This error message should not exist in the first place. If things are working, then you get the URL you ask for. Otherwise, you get an error message. There is no need to indicate things are back to normal, the fact that things are working normally indicates it just fine. Alerts are for exceptional situations, not routine or normal ones.
The message looks too scary. It is informing the user that everything is working, so it should not have the same harsh red coloring, and warning-sign icons as the “YOUR INTERNET IS BROKEN!” messages have. Even though this particular message should not exist, “Informational Alerts” are a valid dialog to show the user. The same loud shapes and colors used to announce a catastrophic error should not be used to announce that updates are ready.
The design sucks, and so does the copy. The simple message uses a staggering three headlines and two icons. It took a while for the enormity of that to hit me. Ether one of the bottom two headlines would have worked just fine.
The topmost headline is terrible. The word “Gateway” is technical jargon. “Alert Notification” is amateur copy — an alert is a notification and vica versa — ether word would work on it’s own, together they trip over each-other. “SBC Internet Service Alert” would be acceptable.
The rest of the copy is overly verbose, and ‘fair’ at best.
Finally none of the SBC error messages list the support number to call if something is broken at their end (which has happened). I suspect this is a chicken-shit move designed to drive down call-center costs by discouraging callers. Regardless of the cause, the effect is that all their error messages, including this one, are lacking critical information that would help a resolution.
The solution to all these problems is to omit “everything is working” messages. Let the program’s functionality, or the lack of messages indicate it.