Writing effective error messages
Govind_Baliga 1200008P2J Comments (9) Visits (5606)
a) Emphasizing the error message. When a user has to fill a lengthyform, and at the time of submission a mistake is made, the error message must stand out. If the font size or color is does not easily distinguish from the rest of the display, then it will puzzle the user as to why they weren’t able to submit the form. Displaying error message on top of the form or better yet, performing a validation check as the user types their entry in the required fields. For example, system can easily check for valid e-mail address format such as looking for “@” symbol and “.” in the entry. If those are missing it can display “E-mail address format is incorrect".” Or if the user proceeds to filling the next field before filling the previous required field, it can display “E-mail address field is required.”.
b) Provide an example and explain in simple terms. Avoid using technical jargons so that the user doesn’t get confused. Keep in mind that end users have different level of expertise and expectations. An example of a vague and complex error would be something like: “Invalid tags: Exception PXXA0234 – java.lang.error”. Here we state the problem in technical terms and not provide a suggestion to remedy the problem. Consider the following error message: “Tags can contain only alphanumeric characters (a-z, A-Z, and 0-9) and the following special characters: , (comma), _ (underscore), and a space.”
c) Use your language carefully. Do not use dangerous icons or exclamations at the end of the sentence or use all-caps to change the tone of the error message. Avoid using harsh words such as “Fatal error!” or “Illegal operation”. The goal is not to blame the user for their mistake if they have made one. Provide them with an option to retry or an alternative workflow (if available). For example: “We've encountered a problem. Please click the Back button and try again. If this does not work, report the problem in the support forum.”
d) Retain user’s entry when an error message is displayed. There is nothing more frustrating than filling out a form, and losing that information at the time of form submission when the error message is displayed. Why punish a user when they have made a mistake? Display all the values entered by the user on the error page and allow them to edit their information & resubmit after making changes.
e) Translate the error message for local sites. Often times, the main content and features on the site gets translated, but not the error message. Here, not only the error message should be translated but also the tone, and the words should be used carefully. When possible, have a native language speaker cross-verify the context of the error message.
When validating applications, we must place equal importance on workflows with positive as well as negative test scenarios. Guiding users with helpful error messages & documentation will keep users engaged and satisfied on your site.