Life Online: Humor in the Hated Error Message

Error messages. We love to hate them. They’re like that whack-a-mole game we played as kids. You hit them to make them disappear only to have another show up mocking you from a nearby location. On and on they seem to go, only unlike the game the errors don’t stop coming after a certain number of encounters.

As one in the field of User Experience (UX) one of our major goals is to prevent those pesky little messages from ever appearing, but despite our best intentions errors still happen. Because of this in Jakob Nielsen’s ‘Ten Usability Heuristics’ Error prevention has a friend known as Help users recognize, diagnose and recover from errors. Here is his recommendation on how to accomplish that:

Error messages should be expressed in plain language (no codes), precisely indicate the problem, and constructively suggest a solution.

It’s good right? None of us like getting the messages that say some random line of letters and numbers is having an issue with port 80 and needs your attention. Well, developers probably like those, but for the rest of the world it tells us nothing other than that our computers hate us in that moment in time. Plain language is a very good thing.

So, earlier this afternoon I got an IM from the Product Owner (lead) for the team I work with asking me to write an error message. It turns out that people who have cookies turned off in their browser couldn’t get past the first page of our sign-up process. I asked a couple questions then quickly mocked up samples for them. They were narrowed down to these two potential options.

Option 1

We know cookies can be hard to share, but we need them in order to proceed. Please check your privacy settings to make sure they are not disabled.

Option 2

Please check your privacy setting and makes sure cookies are enabled in order to proceed.

These were read by a fellow UXer, the Product Owner and myself. We all had the same reaction and I found it fascinating. Personally we all liked ‘Option 1’ better, but felt that we should use ‘Option 2’ in the actual message users read. We even agreed that we prefer a sense of humor when we encounter error messages, but that was not (as far as I am aware) the message that was chosen.

Why? Because convention, standards and even our heuristics tell us that that’s what we’re supposed to do. In fact the heuristic previous to the one previously quoted says that ‘dialogues should not contain information which is irrelevant or rarely needed’. In other words, no joking about cookies.

Now, I know I have a bit of a quirky sense of humor. I’ve even got a category in my blog known as ‘Shenanigans’. What I’m curious about is what the actual users of the internet think.

Which option would you rather see if you got that error?

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5 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Mr. J
    Jul 20, 2010 @ 15:31:32

    Quite obviously the first one. :P

    Reply

  2. Joshua Lay
    Jul 20, 2010 @ 19:06:38

    I think it depends on the severity of the error.

    In your example just enabling cookies allowed them to get to the signup landing page. Something instructional like Option 2 works perfectly as it’s clear and concise. People are more likely to realise they should act on it.

    Option 1 would be suited for a more serious error. Something that prevents a user from achieving something. In that sense humour is a good device to calm them down when explaining the situation. There’s nothing they can do to resolve the error.

    Giving a bit more of a human element to that error would help reduce frustration in my opinion.

    Reply

  3. Zachary Spencer
    Jul 20, 2010 @ 20:38:55

    If you need a volunteer for taking bites from said cookie, I am more than willing too.

    And screw hueristics. I’d rather see a/b testing of the two options with some kind of goal (I.e. people who leave the site vs. fix the problem and continue)

    Reply

  4. Adam
    Jul 21, 2010 @ 11:20:04

    I think that it doesn’t have to be either/or (humor or clear instruction).

    My suggestion would be to lead with the clear instruction but maybe soften it a bit at the end, such as “Please check your privacy settings and makes sure cookies are enabled in order to proceed. Optional: check your pantry for cookies and have one.”

    Or whatever. You get the idea – my only objection to option 1 is that the extra words at the beginning confuse the issue and dilute what should be a clear call to action. I think humor is always a plus, if it fits with the brand. It’s one reason I love using MailChimp – their UX is great.

    Reply

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