Soddin’ useless error messages!

Seriously do some designers and developers think users are  mind readers? I’ve just tried to signup for and believe i’ve filled out the form correctly, yet I continue to get this annoying and ridiculous ‘helpful’ dialogue:


Oh how useful! Jeez… I can tell you now that i’ve checked over the form and it looks ok to me, no obvious errors so I’m betting they have some tight password restrictions that they’re neglecting to inform the user about. Yep that’s right, there is no help or error text on the form when you go back to it. Not even a little red asterix anywhere to give you the teeniest of hints where you might need to focus your efforts. Needless to say i’m giving this one a miss. One less user for due to poor error handling and total lack of help text.

Whilst i’m on the subject, here’s another lovely worded piece of error text. It’s so friendly, understanding and helpful (not!).



Referring to a person as ‘this user’ is never a good thing and you’re sure to annoy them by de-peronalising them in such a way. It’s also not helpful to say the number of errors. Why does that help the user to complete the form in any way?

It’s much better to be informative in a readable manner. Don’t be afraid to be informal – speak the user’s language. Lighten it up a bit, maybe you should even apologise so the pressure’s off them – it’s not that they made an error, it’s more than likely the form was poorly designed which caused the error in the first place.

Forms are generally boring. People hate having to fill them in. So why not ‘fun’ them up a bit. Try some of the following:

Use colour

Use informal language

Use transitions to make the form feel nicer to use

Think about whether you could add some funky graphics. Careful not to hinder the form usability though – it still needs to be focussed without anything distracting rather than contributing to completing the form.

Don’t forget to follow usability guidelines too! 


Say what the error is AND how the user can fix it

Show the user which fields needs correcting. They should be visually different to the other fields.

– Put errors in place, rather than waiting for the user to press the ‘send’ button. Less pain, more gain!

Avoid technical language at all costs. Use words your audience will understand.

Try and keep the form itself short and painless too. Really think about the info you’re asking for. Cut it down, sleep on it and cut it down some more. Be ruthless! Form design isn’t easy and you should always perform usability testing on your form to ensure there’s nothing you’ve missed that could result in major drop-offs. Happy designing! 🙂

5 thoughts on “Soddin’ useless error messages!

  1. usabilitygal says:

    You might also enjoy reading this article

    “In essence, if the test subject had experienced an error message just a few moments before, then the test subject would proactively fill out more fields than necessary in order to avoid new error messages. The downside to this was that in most instances these test subjects felt uneasy providing information they’d prefer to keep private.”

    Food for thought!

  2. Paul Littlebury says:

    Think I have similar patience levels with websites and software – if it annoys me too much too quickly, I will dump them just to spite them 🙂 We all know this as users, but for some reason when a user is also a project manager for a web application, these kind of usability frustrations suddenly don’t figure in plans. I am not immune to that blind-spot either – occasionally I have to give myself a nudge to remember the user is the final judge.

    Error messages are a particular bugbear I have – for some reason the usual look of them implies you should panic – red border, exclamation mark, red text – all thats missing is a fire bell. And spot-on; never call the user, “user” – you are not expecting the software to be sensitive to your needs, or massage your neurosis – but it doesn’t need to be rude either. Developers commonly complain about their server error messages containing no helpful information – but interestingly getting them to see the value of better error messages remains a challenge sometimes. But usually by reminding them they were effing and blinding at server error emails earlier that day, about the unhelpful content, puts the point across. Also helps with testing, of course to have more representative error messages appearing.

    Quality of error messages always suffers, because it constantly ends up at the end of the development task queue. Then of course, there ends up no time to do them,and because they haven’t been specifically requested, end up easily omitted. This is not across the board, I dont want to generalize – but I don’t exactly have a application example springing to mind right now either! That has been improvements, as the importance of usability has really permeated into general development approaches. What’s commonly omitted in requirements are error messages – and they are easy to specify at that stage, because you have got the scenarios, both positive and negative, to work from.

    Totally agree with the error format spec you’ve outlined, though I dont know if its the grumpy old man in me, or been in QA too long, but the apology part irritates me! Accepting fault is good enough. I think the problem with an apology is that if errors pop-up too regularly, the user will get irritated by constant apologies, aggravating an already irritating situation of getting errors. It’s akin to the irritation upon hearing “we apologise …” on the london underground every day, in endless loop. If you hear apologies too much, you believe the sincerity less. Maybe that was digressing and analysing a little too much 🙂

  3. usabilitygal says:

    Hey Paul, thanks for commenting. Really interesting to read your view as to why the quality of error messages can be so poor.

    You know I do agree with you on the apology part. I did wonder whether or not to include it because to me it would sound odd to say something like ‘we’re sorry…’ but with careful wording you probably can concoct something that works and like you say, so long as you don’t go OTT. I think what’s more important is that the user doesn’t feel like it’s their fault, that they did something wrong. You find this in user tests a lot – they always blame themselves and many even apologise. That’s why I think keeping things fairly light-hearted can work and I think we can learn a lot from the great 404 pages around these days. Unfortunately form errors aren’t as fun to design as 404 pages but hopefully they’ll follow a similar path.

    Speaking of 404 pages, I love these:

    Who’d have thought that one day we’d all enjoy looking at 404 pages! 🙂

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