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Writing Great Error Messages

I knew this, I really did, but I had to be reminded: A really good error message doesn't tell the user that something's wrong or even what it is that's wrong. A really good error message tells the user what they need to do to solve this problem.

You don't want to have your error messages say things like "Invoices cannot be processed" or even "Invoices cannot be processed: Invoices have different due dates." Those error messages just tell the user what's gone wrong (in varying levels of detail). Instead, tell the user what to do and then, if you want, what the problem is: "Only select invoices with the same due dates -- the selected invoices have multiple due dates."

And, by the way: Always write the error message from the user's point of view and using the user's vocabulary. I remember getting one error message that ended with "…and if this is a server-side error, contact System Administration." How the users, from their point of view, were going to figure out that the problem was (or wasn't) a 'server-side error' was a mystery to me.

Posted by Peter Vogel on 09/19/2013 at 6:48 AM

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