Error messaging

A good error message explains what’s going on, describes the reason for it, and guides people to resolve their problems.

Error messages

What’s an error?

An error is an unexpected and unwanted problem that prevents people from successfully finishing their tasks. It can be either a small slip (typo) or a big deal (sending a Reach campaign to the wrong group).

When people can’t get their job done, they go through a whirlwind of emotions:

  • frustration (“Why doesn’t it work?!”)
  • embarrassment (“I must use it the wrong way”)
  • impatience (“It's my third attempt, what’s going on?”)
  • fright (“Oh no, I deleted all data!”)

If the problem gets bigger, it becomes an insurmountable obstacle. As a result, people give up or go to the competitor. Errors are troublesome for us too. Instead of working on new features, we have to fix bugs and deal with complaints.

Fortunately, there are ways to lend a hand to our users. Thoughtful messaging can help people move forward and achieve their goals. Here’s how.

But first, prevent errors from happening

The best error message is no error message. Try to foresee problems before they even happen. Here’s what you can do:

  • Educate people and explain how the product works
  • Use helper text, placeholder text, and counter in forms
  • Ask for confirmation in stressful and potentially damaging situations
  • Display contextual warning messages before people finish the task
  • Allow undoing the action
  • Reframe errors as opportunities
  • Rethink the flow and interaction patterns

How to write a good error message

If the error message were a real conversation between two people, it would go like “Hey, we’ve got a problem, but here’s what we can do.” This parallel says a lot about their purpose. Error messages should be helpful, specific, natural, and empathetic.

Be helpful

Tell people what happened and offer a solution.

The error message above feels half-baked. People know what happened (there’s a problem with a prototype) and why (it’s not available publicly). But there’s no suggestion on what people can do about it.

Let people know what happened, explain the reason for it, and help people to resolve their problems. Adding a CTA or a helper link will reduce the effort needed to fix the issue.

Be specific

Go beyond the “something went wrong” narrative.

This message is ambiguous. It’s not clear what went wrong and what exactly should people do.

Be precise whenever possible. Give the right amount of information to help people move on.

Be natural

Write like a human speaks.

The text above is full of technical terms confusing to the non-tech-savvy audience. When language is too complicated, it may cause people to feel like they're not smart enough (not to mention they won't know what to do next). Use industry-specific terms with caution—only if they don’t exclude people outside your group. Remember, words that are transparent to us may not be clear to others.

The golden rule of readability: picture an eleven-year-old and write as if you were talking to them. Rewrite your message if they would have trouble understanding you. To ensure clarity, use plain and familiar words over the unusual.

Be empathetic

Choose your tone carefully.

Exclamations and words such as “fail,” “critical,” “fatal,” and “unsuccessful” add too much drama. After reading this message, people will feel even more stressed than before.

You can use the word “we” to show your empathy. “We’re in this together” sounds much more supportive than “You’ve made a fatal mistake.”

When people encounter an error, they’re usually not in a laughing mood. A playful or overly cheerful tone isn’t the best way to deliver bad news. The message above might be perceived as annoying or rude, regardless of our intentions.

Be straightforward and no-nonsense. There’s no need for metaphors, catchphrases, or fake sympathy.

Further reading