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How to write effective error messages for software applications


Cover image: How to write effective error messages for software applications
How to write effective error messages for software applications

You understand as a Product designer how crucial it is to your software application's success to create a seamless and simple user experience. Yet mistakes can happen in even the best-designed programs. When these errors occur, it's up to you to ensure that users are provided with clear and effective error messages that can help them quickly understand what went wrong and how to resolve the issue.


Ineffective error messages can be frustrating for users and can harm the overall user experience. Generic error messages, technical jargon, blaming the user for the error, and not explaining what went wrong are common mistakes that can lead to confusion and frustration. As a Product designer, it's your responsibility to create error messages that are easy to understand, offer helpful solutions, and use a friendly and empathetic tone.


Effective error messages not only help users resolve errors quickly, but they also build trust and confidence in your application. When users feel supported and empowered to resolve issues on their own, they are more likely to have a positive experience and become loyal users of your application.


So, we'll discuss common mistakes to avoid when writing error messages, provide tips for writing effective error messages, and share best practices for designing error messages that resonate with your users. By following these guidelines, you can create error messages that help your users quickly and easily resolve issues, resulting in a more positive user experience and increased trust in your application.


Common mistakes to avoid when writing error messages

a. Vague error messages

When writing error messages, it's crucial to avoid using generic and vague language that doesn't provide any useful information to the user. Simply stating that an error occurred without explaining what caused it or how to fix it can be frustrating and confusing for the user.

An example of a vague error message

For example, an error message that says "An error has occurred. Please try again later." This error message doesn't provide any specific information about what went wrong or how to fix the problem. It also doesn't provide any indication of when the user should try again, or any indication of how long they might need to wait before trying again. As a result, the user may be left feeling frustrated and unsure of how to proceed.


A better error message would provide more specific information about what went wrong and offer suggestions for how to fix the problem. For example:


"Sorry, we're experiencing technical difficulties at the moment. Please check your internet connection and try again in a few minutes. If the problem persists, please contact customer support for assistance."


This error message provides the user with more specific information about what went wrong (technical difficulties), and offers suggestions for how to fix the problem (check internet connection, try again later, contact customer support). This type of error message helps to reduce frustration by providing clear guidance on how to proceed.


b. Technical jargon

Technical jargon can be intimidating and confusing for many users, so it's important to avoid using it in error messages. Instead, use clear and concise language that is easy to understand.

An example of technical jargon

For example, "Error: ECG lead placement incorrect"


This error message uses medical jargon (ECG, lead placement) that may not be familiar to the user. This can be confusing and intimidating for the user, as they may not know what the error message means or how to fix the issue.


A better error message would provide more user-friendly language and specific information about what went wrong. For example:


"Sorry, we're having trouble reading your heart rate. Please check the placement of the heart rate monitor and make sure it's securely attached to your chest. If the problem persists, please contact your healthcare provider for assistance."


This error message uses clear and concise language that is easy for the user to understand. It also provides specific information about what went wrong (the heart rate monitor is not reading correctly) and offers suggestions for how to fix the issue (check monitor placement, contact healthcare provider).


c. Blaming the user

Blaming the user for an error is never a good approach. It can make the user feel frustrated and helpless, which can harm the overall user experience.

An example of an error message blaming the user for taking the wrong action

For example, "Error: Invalid password. You must have entered it incorrectly."


This error message places the blame on the user, implying that they made a mistake when entering their password. This can be frustrating and discouraging for the user, as they may feel like they are being scolded for making a mistake.


A better error message would avoid blaming the user and focus on providing specific information about what went wrong. For example:


"Sorry, we couldn't verify your password. Please double-check that you've entered it correctly, and make sure that your caps lock and num lock keys are turned off. If you continue to have trouble, please click 'forgot password' to reset your password."


This error message provides more helpful information to the user, without blaming them for the error. It offers specific suggestions for how to fix the problem (double-check password, turn off caps lock/num lock, reset password) and encourages the user to seek additional help if needed.


d. No explanation of what went wrong

Simply stating that an error occurred without providing any information about what caused it or how to fix it is another common mistake to avoid. Users need to understand what went wrong to prevent the error from happening again.

An error message show give enough explanation

For example, "Error: Unable to complete task."


This error message doesn't provide any specific information about what went wrong or why the task couldn't be completed. This can be frustrating and confusing for the user, as they don't know how to fix the issue or what steps to take next.


A better error message would provide more specific information about what went wrong and offer suggestions for how to fix the problem. For example:


"Sorry, we're unable to complete your request at this time due to an issue with the server. Please try again later, or contact customer support if the problem persists."


This error message provides more helpful information to the user, explaining what went wrong (an issue with the server) and offering suggestions for how to proceed (try again later or contact customer support).


Tips for writing effective error messages

a. Use clear and concise language

When writing error messages, it's important to use language that is clear and easy to understand. Avoid using technical jargon or complex sentences that could confuse the user. Use simple, straightforward language that gets straight to the point.

For example, instead of saying "We're sorry, but the data you entered cannot be processed," you could say "Sorry, we can't process that data."


b. Provide specific information about the error

To help the user understand what went wrong, it's important to provide specific information about the error. This could include error codes, messages, or descriptions of the problem.

For example, instead of saying "Error 404," you could say "The page you're looking for can't be found. Please check the URL and try again."



An image listing information a good error message should contain

c. Offer a solution or suggestion for how to fix the problem

Providing a solution or suggestion for how to fix the problem can help the user quickly resolve the issue. This could include instructions for how to correct an input error, or links to helpful resources for more complex issues.

For example, if a user enters an invalid email address, you could say "Please enter a valid email address, such as yourname@example.com."


d. Use a friendly tone

Even though error messages may indicate that something has gone wrong, it's important to use a friendly and empathetic tone. This can help to ease any frustration or anxiety that the user may be feeling, and can ultimately lead to a more positive user experience.

For example, instead of saying "You have made an error," you could say "Oops! It looks like something went wrong. Don't worry, we're here to help you fix it!"


Best practices for designing error messages

a. Use color, typography, and iconography to convey meaning

Color, typography, and iconography can be used to make error messages more visually appealing and convey meaning to the user. For example, using red for error messages and green for success messages can help the user quickly understand whether an action was successful or not. Similarly, using icons or symbols can help the user understand what went wrong and how to fix it.


b. Make sure error messages are visible and easy to find

Error messages should be prominently displayed and easy to find. This could include displaying the message in a pop-up or modal window, or placing it near the field where the error occurred. It's also important to make sure that the error message stands out from the rest of the page, so that the user can quickly identify it.


c. Provide helpful feedback to the user when they correct the error

Once the user corrects the error, it's important to provide feedback that lets them know that the problem has been resolved. This could include displaying a success message or changing the color of the input field to green. Additionally, it's important to make sure that the user can proceed with the action they were trying to complete before the error occurred.


Conclusion

By taking the time to design effective error messages, you can build trust with your users and create a more enjoyable and seamless experience for them. So, the next time you're designing an application or website, be sure to prioritize error messages as a key component of your overall user experience design.


If you are just starting out as an aspiring UI/UX designer, researcher or writer and need some practical experience to learn more on these topics and more. It has been made easy with the GoCreate USA mentorship program which is part of a Bootcamp experience. You also have the opportunity to work as an apprentice with our partners and work on live projects.


Check the Brave Achievers GoCreate website for opportunities for training and mentorship.

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