How to be helpful when things go south

TLDR

  • Error messages must be well-crafted, empathetic and problem-solving.
  • If you can, tell the customer what went wrong and how to recover.
  • Avoid talking about server errors or technical issues that don’t give customers useful information.
  • Keep messages substantial and case-specific: generic messages usually aren’t very helpful.
  • Watch your tone: things have gone wrong, and attempts to delight are not likely to be appreciated.

The relationship between a customer and a company is something like a friendship. Brands spend a lot of time and money promoting these friendships and aspire to keep them fresh and healthy.

Like a good friendship, the test of the strength of a relationship between a customer and a company occurs not when things go well, but when things go wrong.

The friends we value the most are those who have proven that they will be there for us when we’re sad or upset or hurt. Likewise, the companies that customers value most are the ones that are there for them when disappointment, mistakes and failures inevitably occur.

That’s why error handling is so important. The way a company handles error cases reveals its true priorities, loyalties and level of organisational maturity.

A first principle:

There’s no such thing as a “generic error message.”

Write specific messages for specific cases. Get as much info from the designer and/or engineer as you can. The more generic the message, the less helpful it is.

Keep messages short & simple

  • Don’t over-explain. Tell the customer what happened and how to continue.
  • Say what to do next rather than just saying what went wrong. For example, “Please enter the correct password” is much stronger than “Invalid password entered”.
  • Don’t discuss “server errors” or other technical breakage: these may be the reason for an error, but knowing this doesn’t help most people.
  • Don’t repeat information, e.g., don’t say in the body copy what you’ve already said in the headline.
  • For missing pages and “404s”, generally omit the number from your error message.

Keep messages short & substantial

  • Avoid “Something went wrong” or “An error occurred,” especially as a headline. Clearly, something went wrong and/or an error occurred. Aim higher: be more helpful.
  • Avoid the word “unexpected”: it makes you look as though you hadn’t considered that what just happened could have happened.

Watch your tone

Avoid coarse, unkind language:

Aborted

Failed

Crashed

Wrong

Error

That’s right: avoid “error” in error messages!

Do not assign blame to the customer or the product.

My personal preference is also to avoid “Dismiss” on buttons. It sounds so…dismissive, formal, curt.

Watch your tone (part 2)

Avoid superficiality:

Whoops!

Oops!

Yowza!

Snap!

These aren’t helpful and just take up space.

Bouncing back from errors

Error messages normally take at least a “Close” button as the dismissal affordance and could include a 2nd remedial button if possible, e.g., “Go to settings” and “Close”.

Don’t use an “OK” button since the situation probably isn’t OK in the eyes of the customer.

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If all else fails…

If you’re stuck for a headline, and nothing else seems to work, use something like this:

Couldn’t complete your request

But don’t stop there: again, offer as much remedial help as you can in the body of the message and CTAs.

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The grumpy old UX writer

Welcome. I’m an older guy working in tech, so please forgive my grumpiness 😒 I’ve worked as a UX writer for 12 years and will likely be doing it when I retire.