On Error Messages

Here’s a pet peeve of mine: Customers who don’t read the error messages. The usual symptom is a belief that there is just on error: “Doesn’t work”, and that all forms of “doesn’t work” are the same. So if you tried something, got an error, your changed something and you are still getting an error, nothing changed.

I hope everyone who reads this blog understand why this behavior makes any troubleshooting nearly impossible. So I won’t bother to explain why I find this so annoying and so self defeating. Instead, I’ll explain what can we, as developers, can do to improve the situation a bit. (OMG, did I just refer to myself as a developer? I do write code that is then used by customers, so I may as well take responsibility for it)

Here’s what I see as main reasons people don’t read error messages:

  1. Error message is so long that they don’t know where to start reading. Errors with multiple Java stack dumps are especially fun. Stack traces are useful only to people who look at the code, so while its important to get them (for support), in most cases your users don’t need to see all that very specific information.
  2. Many different errors lead to the same message. The error message simply doesn’t indicate what the error may be, because it can be one of many different things. I think Kerberos is the worst offender here, so many failures look identical. If this happens very often, you tune out the error message.
  3. The error is so technical and cryptic that it gives you no clue on where to start troubleshooting.  “Table not Found” is clear. “Call to localhost failed on local exception” is not.

I spend a lot of time explaining to my customers “When <app X> says <this> it means that <misconfiguration> happened and you should <solution>”.

To get users to read error messages, I think error messages should be:

  1. Short. Single line or less.
  2. Clear. As much as possible, explain what went wrong in terms your users should understand.
  3. Actionable. There should be one or two actions that the user should take to either resolve the issue or gather enough information to deduce what happened.

I think Oracle are doing a pretty good job of it. Every one of their errors has an ID number, a short description, an explanation and a proposed solution. See here for example: http://docs.oracle.com/cd/B28359_01/server.111/b28278/e2100.htm#ORA-02140

If we don’t make our errors short, clear and actionable – we shouldn’t be surprised when our users simply ignore them and then complain that our app is impossible to use (or worse – don’t complain, but also don’t use our app).

 

 

 

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2 Comments on “On Error Messages”

  1. rodgersnotes says:

    Absolutely! Good post!

    I agree, Oracle error messages are usually pretty good; you know the cause and solution pretty quickly. Except for messages concerning networking, which have often lead me one direction, when the solution was actually in another.

    Car fix it manuals have the matrix: Problem, Probable cause, Solution. ie.
    Car will not start. Out of gas. Fill gas tank with gas.

    I’ve written a lot of thoughts on error messages here:

    Poor Or No Error Trapping

    https://rodgersnotes.wordpress.com/2010/10/19/poor-or-no-error-trapping/

    Interestingly enough, so many of the best solutions are not so much in documentation, as they are on individuals’ blogs.

    What if we were to decrease engineers’ bonuses by the length of time required for some strangers to figure out their error “messages” ? :)

  2. Hello prodlife, what’s up?

    Oracle should implement the F1 key so that we get some really useful help and even online help

    But I suppose you have no F1 key on your device :)

    Cheers
    Laurent


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