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?


Belated Memorial Day Thoughts

I had every intention of posting this on Memorial Day, but I’m afraid that this week has been rather on the insane side. So, I decided that since the purpose of Memorial Day isn’t something that should be contained within the 24 hours set aside for it in the 8,765.81277 hours of a year, I would go ahead and post it a little bit later than scheduled.

Here in the United States it seems that everyone over the age of eighteen is jaded about something. I know that I am. Take holidays for example. Every time I sync calengoo on my ipod with my Google calendars it reminds me of the 40+ American holidays it’s  go to go through with the update. That’s approximately 1 holiday every 9 days. Craziness, right? I know I don’t actually have time for that many holidays. So instead they get prioritized. Some are marked as family time, some as federal no mail days and some are barely on my calenderic radar; which is probably pretty common for everyone who doesn’t work for a greeting card company.

It doesn’t seem at all surprising then that somewhere in this myriad of holidays we’ve seemingly worked our way into losing the value in even having them. Just think, we hear complaints about commercialization at Easter and Christmas every year. You can count on it. I would argue that Memorial Day is in the same shoes as both of those. In fact,  I’d go as far as to say it’s in even worse shape. Sure there are flags on the ads, but they’re more concerned with kicking off summer three weeks before it begins than showing your support for our military.

When did we forget what Memorial Day is all about and turn it into an extended vacation weekend?

About a year ago a local author visited our Rotary club to talk about his books, all of which are set during the last year of World War II, and one of the things that he talked about was how the nation came together at that time because every family was touched by the sacrifices that were made during the war. I couldn’t help but wonder as he said it how we modern Americans would measure up against that standard.

When Pearl Harbor was attacked on December 7, 1941, there were 2,350 deaths; 68 of which were civilian. The nation solidified behind a common cause and stayed together through three years of sacrifice. Not only did every family either have someone who served in the war or know someone who did, but there were personal sacrifices on the homefront as well and when the veterans returned from the war they were honored as heroes as they well deserved.

A little less than sixty years later we were attacked again. September 11th, 2001. I still remember it clearly. It’s kind of event that you share with your childrens’ children when you’re old an gray and they’re studying it in history class. by comparison, there have been 2,995 deaths linked to those attacks – the majority of which were civilian. For a brief time we banded together as a nation, but  that quickly dissipated into complaints of being called into duty from the reserves and bickering over the federal defense budget as well as our own petty differences.

How many of our modern veterans came home to find protests and hatred from the very citizens that they have been working to protect? In my personal opinion it has been far, far too many. No matter what one’s personal views are on the war, these men and women deserve more from us – the people they sacrifice of themselves to protect.

Monday, a pair of A-10s flew over my hometown as a part of Memorial Day. How many people didn’t even realize why they were there? The parade to honor the veterans passed by in less than 20 minutes because not enough people are willing to take the time to be a part of it when they could be off on a three day weekend.

Perhaps, as a descendant of a long line of military servicemen and women, I’m oversensitive. After all tears came to my eyes just telling my mom about a short video played at church to honor the veterans and Memorial Day. Even thinking about it now I can feel my tear ducts working up a sheen of misty eyes.  I don’t expect other people to have the same type of deep emotional reaction as me, but I also can’t help but feel that in our jaded, forgetful, ADD mindset we have lost a part of what made the United States of America into the great land that it is.

Remembering the sacrifices that have been and are being made for the freedom we enjoy shouldn’t be limited to one day a year.

The next time you hear an opinion you disagree with or complain about the current crop of political candidates; take a moment to be thankful for those who gave up so much, some their lives, so that you have the right and the choice to do so.