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Writing good error messages which help users understand how to use the system is difficult. Often we get bug reports stating "Error message x is confusing" which usually sparks a long debate in the team over how to reword it.

Are there any good resources out there about how to write good error messages.

Im looking for

  • books
  • Good blog posts articles
  • papers
  • research results

Many design books mention it but only devote a few paragraphs to it.

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Get someone in your organization that didn't develop the software to use (abuse) the software and see what they say. Also, an error message should tell the user how to fix the problem, not just report a problem. –  Gilbert Le Blanc Sep 20 '11 at 13:14
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2 Answers

Defensive Design for the Web: How to Improve Error Messages, Help, Forms, and Other Crisis Points (2004) by 37signals, while outdated in 2011, does show you various examples of bad error handling, including copy, and explains what's wrong and how to improve. It calls all this "contingency design" (the title of the book is inspired by the concept of defensive driving). Some of the patterns extracted are still relevant today. Notably Amazon was a leader in this area way back then.

The biggest thing I took away from it when I read it back then was that your site should behave like a salesman in a store: if I'm lost or I can't find an item, the salesman will ask me questions to help me find what I'm looking for whereas most websites will just say "Not found" and that's it. Here's an excerpt from the opening chapter:

This book will show you how to use contingency design to improve your site's usability. You'll learn the following:

  • What contingency design is and why it's important
  • 40 guidelines that will help you prevent errors and rescue customers when things go wrong
  • How to make error recovery and prevention part of your long-term design process
  • How to evaluate your site's contingency design so you can focus on the areas that need help most

Overall the book is useful in designing error handling in your site or app, but there are some good points made specifically about copy as well. From chapter two, "Show the problem: display obvious error messages and alerts":

A good error message lets a customer instantly know:

  • That an error occurred
  • What the error is
  • How to recover

The chapter contains a huge number of examples (from 2003) of sites (many of which no longer exist). Each discussion point includes examples of sites doing things the wrong way and why, and examples of sites doing things well and why.

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Smashing Magazine: Getting Started With Defensive Web Design cites that book as a resource + Bulletproof Web Design, by Dan Cederholm which is about Contingency Design, 3rd edition (HTML5 and CSS3) due out end of this year. For further information, this reviewer rates the second book over the former. –  Roger Attrill Sep 20 '11 at 12:37
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@Roger Two different (unrelated) kinds of contingency design. Defensive Web Design is about contingency design at a high level; eg. how do you design your app/site to deal with contingencies like "this item is not available". Bulletproof Web Design is about implementation, specifically CSS, and gives you concrete HTML/CSS examples relating to how to design for contingencies like unsupported browsers. –  Rahul Sep 20 '11 at 13:15
    
thanks for the context update –  Roger Attrill Sep 20 '11 at 13:20
    
Will look into this book... How about web sites and or blogs... is there anything out there? –  Mark Sep 21 '11 at 9:20
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So far I have found the following websites:

Avoid Being Embarrassed by Your Error Messages

http://www.uxmatters.com/mt/archives/2010/08/avoid-being-embarrassed-by-your-error-messages.php

What happens when you get it wrong

http://twitpic.com/27fw8t

Non-Fatal Errors: Creating Usable, Effective Error Messages

http://www.writersua.com/articles/message/index.html

A Review of Error Messages

http://www.developsense.com/essays/AReviewOfErrorMessages.html

Importance of writing standard Error Messages for better software products

http://blog.imaginea.com/correcting-%E2%80%98something-that-went-wrong-somewhere%E2%80%99-the-four-dots-and-more/

Writing Error Messages

http://jimroyal.com/knowledge/thought-about-technical-writing/writing-error-messages/

Feedback messages and error messages

http://styleguide.yahoo.com/writing/write-clear-user-interface-text/feedback-messages-and-error-messages

A classic and expensive error

http://www.thinkflowinteractive.com/2009/02/16/250000-from-better-error-messages/

A More Useful 404

http://www.alistapart.com/articles/amoreuseful404/

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Hi Mark, please add information about each website so that in future, if the links end up not working, this answer is still useful. –  Rahul Jan 20 '12 at 12:11
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You mean title of the article and short description of why its useful? –  Mark Jan 20 '12 at 13:41
    
Yeah, that would be great! –  Rahul Jan 20 '12 at 13:42
    
several of these links simply return some type of "404 not found" (...if you know what I mean). It's unclear if we're meant to see these "page not found" errors as examples of good/bad error messages, or if it really is an error for a dead link. Again, "please add info about each website, so that in the future (which is now!), this answer is still useful." Presently we have title and link, but not the "short description". A link is good as a reference for additional detail & depth (that's the metaphor, anyway), but is not information in & of itself. (Ironically, a bad UX answer, overall.) –  michael_n Feb 28 '13 at 4:37
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