Usability and Error Messages

I often consider usability when using web applications, especially when I am the user. Our lovely state of North Carolina, is very tech savvy and has a lot of online resources and help. Did you know that North Carolina was one of the first states to have it's own data center?

Today, I went online to change my address on my Driver License. Apparently there is some complication with my particular license (hopefully not a warrant out for my arrest :-) ) in the system and I need to go into a physical office for human assistance. As an application architect, I can see this is probably some poorly handled data condition. I can dig that, a computer can't handle EVERYTHING...

What prompted this post was a bit of musing on proper error messages. When humans interact with computers, by definition there is a depersonalization to the process. This depersonalization can add a level of harshness or friction into the equation, altering the perception of the organization to the user. Allow me to pontificate...

I often stay at nice hotels. Nice hotels always have extremely polite front desk staff to help check guests in. The check-in phase of the hotel stay sets the stage for perception. If the registration desk is nicely furnished, elegant and staffed with ultra-polite staff, guests perceive the hotel as a nicely furnished, elegant and ultra-polite and this perception sticks with them the entire trip. If there is some reason why a request can not be accommodated, say I ask for a room on the top floor and the top floor has already been booked, the registration staff apologize effusively and find a suitable arrangement. Even if I asked for something impossible, like a helicopter to take my bags to my room, the staff would politely and softly apologize that such a service was not available, then offer the services of a bellman for bag delivery.

Hotels definitely understand the human touch. Computers do not. Nor do the engineers that create applications. See, it was perfectly acceptable for some reason or another not to provide algorithms suitable for handling an address change with my specific type of license. The engineer probably had a meeting discussing just such an occurrence and it was deemed not critical for the application. So the engineer dutifully put in code to catch such an occurrence and then added an error message to halt the flow of the application. The engineer considered the application from the perspective of the application and this is what was implemented:

Ouch. Nothing like a BIG RED STOP SIGN.

STOP! It says.. The text, actually, isn't half bad because it attempts to explain the issue, "...Multiple Address Records..." and offer to help me find the nearest office. But, I reeled from the impact of that stop sign.

To stick with the hotel analogy, it was as if I approached the registration desk, asked for a room with a King Sized bed, and the clerk said, "We have no king beds" then slapped me across the face, WACK!

I'm sure all of this seemed rather normal for the Application Engineer, who had undoubtedly seen this error page hundreds of times before during testing and was desensitized to it. Me, however, expecting to see a helpful page allowing me to change my address, was a little taken aback by the HONKING BIG RED STOP SIGN OF DOOM CLUBBING ME LIKE A BABY SEAL.

So, I mused a little bit this morning and made a decision to pay a little more attention to the human factor and to usability. I challenge you to do the same in your applications.

Do you have a screenshot example of a ridiculously insulting error message? Submit a link of the image to me and I'll post it here for the amusement of others...

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9/26/09 6:44 PM # Posted By SealClubber

Can you post an example of what you think would be a better message?

9/27/09 7:11 AM # Posted By Dan Wilson


Yeah, sure. As a user, I don't want to be told to STOP, or Transaction Denied, because this isn't my problem and I'm not doing anything wrong, know what I mean? Now maybe if I was caught stealing drivers licenses, STOP would be appropriate but the page loaded and I have to stop anyways. So you asked for a better error message, here is what I think at the moment:

Firstly, I'd get rid of the large angry stop sign and replace it with a softer image, or remove it entirely.

Then I'd use this textual message:

"I'm sorry we can not complete your transaction online because you are associated with multiple DMV records. One of our helpful associates in your local Driver License Office can help you though, [find your local office here]."

The last sentence fragment surrounded by brackets would be the link to the local driver license office.

The difference is in removing the Stop sign, which sort of assumes I'm at fault, and replaces it with a slightly different toned message.

This would still get the point across, but in a nicer, more human friendly manner.