Insulting Customers on a Daily Basis

Source Title:
Honey v. Vinegar
Story Text:

If you run a website, any kind of website, like me, you're almost certainly insulting your customers on a daily basis. This is the subject of a grokdotcom post that deals with Error! Messages!

It's amazing, i'd just never realized how true (or really even realized it existed) this is. Almost all standard error messages are insulting, and if you're insulting your readers / customers, and making them feel stupid regularly, what kind of marketer are you?

Time Out. Your browser was left idle and lost connection. (Can you see the finger wagging at you?)

Can you please modify your search? (Can you hear an extra emphasis on "please" as a foot taps in frustration?)

Invalid code! (Can you hear the sirens going off?)

Unknown login. (More sirens!)

Errors have occurred during the process of your form. Please make the following corrections. (Can you hear the exasperated sigh?)

Error: Phone number cannot contain dashes. (Now you tell me?)

One or more required fields were not filled out correctly. Red = invalid. (Is that a ruler poised over your knuckles?)


They go on to offer a few common sense alternatives to the standard techno insults:

  • In announcing the problem, use "I" or "We" statements: "We can't find that login" or "We can't find an exact match"
  • Instead of heavy-handed "Correct this" commands, opt for the "Please try again" variations
  • Write your messages in the active voice. "One or more required fields were not filled out correctly" is passive. It doesn't directly blame your incompetence, but you most certainly are the implicit idiot. Why not say, "Oops! We don't understand the zip code. Please try again."
  • Head off error messages at the pass. If your system can't cope with something, say so up front: "Please leave out the dashes in your phone number" or "Please use the two-letter state abbreviation." Better still, extract the format you need from the information they provide.
  • Offer options. If you are speaking with a registered customer, don't berate her with "You have entered an incorrect address." Ask her, as does Amazon, "Could one of these be the correct address?" When logins go awry, provide a help solution.

Im so glad Linda recommended this site to me, that post really is quite revelationary - I can't say im about to spend 30+hrs trawling through the drupal code looking for error handling (oh, god please let their be a central error class!) but i may very well point this out to the dev team :)


The other side of the coin...

I can't say I agree with most of this....we have been told by clients in the past that our error messages were too nice and customers were missing out on what they did wrong and how to fix it. Sometimes you really have to draw people a freakin' diagram.

If the user makes a mistake, it should be explained to the user that s/he made the mistake. Saying things like "We can't find that login" or "We can't find an exact match" gives the impression that the login system is broke, which is not the case, and that'll lead the user to give up altogether or go register/login at the next site.

Now, of course you have to be respectful and professional in your error handling, but I have never once felt a web site wagging a finger at me, slapping me with a ruler, or sighing, or tapping its foot in frustration.

What I do agree with is the premise behind this: "Head off error messages at the pass." Every login form on the web should clearly indicate before you login just how long the password needs to be. I have a couple 5-character passwords, a couple 6-character passwords, and several 8+ passwords, and it's frustrating to be told after the fact how long the password I tried should've been......

I don't know, Nick - maybe since your customers are generally all webmasters / marketers / web savvy folks, you can take the soft approach with error handling. But my experience is that a lot of "average Joes" have to have things in bold red lettering with an exclamation point in order to understand why they can't register, login, etc. :-)

Damn good point

That advice probably needs to be moderated a bit eh?

I think the general idea is still sound, but i do agree that you need to make it clear that the system itself is not faulty.

How about: "You appear to have made a typo, we cannot find a match for that login" or similar?

It's not simply the error

It's not simply the error messages but the propensity of opportunities for error to occur, not least because the site is not being properly maintained.

Whilst it's not always easy for webmasters to notice these errors, areas such as order forms and e-mail scripts should be keenly looked out for.

And yet...

Defensive programming

It is all about knowing what you expect (preconditions) and what you can do with the input. Good form validation, good usability, testing, yada yada - a lot of error messages are not necessary. Error messages when they do occur should be easy to understand and polite. I agree with the learned gentleman above, you definately do not want to give the impression incorrect user input is your fault but at the same time do not leave the impression your user/visitor is a fool (even though they might well be, heh).

37 Signals have done a lot of work in this area.

even more important

accept blame and be polite etc etc I agree with, but the absolute important thing is to make what went wrong clear - I can cope with error messages that blame me, what I really hate is an error message on a 30 field form which says "you seem to have forgotten to fill in a field or used the wrong type of data please try again" - I'd rather they said "you f*%!!"*! idiot you used the wrong date format" because looking through a form trying to see what you forgot/did wrong is just the worst way to spend 5 minutes.

And websites who clear the form and make you complete it all again when it errors can just go find someone else to irritate.....

well clearly

I'm not talking about my sites which are obviously perfectly validated ;) (actually we normally use calenders for dates although they have their own problems)

passwords especially piss me off - I use 'proper' passwords and huge numbers of forms limit you to only letters and numbers - worse, they don't tell you until after you've already done it once.

Passwords only ever annoy me

Passwords only ever annoy me when they're Google related. Pretty much everything I ever type in comes up as "a common word, please consider choosing another" ... yet if I resubmit, it still won't let me use that password, even after I've considered my choice. Fools, every one.

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