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What's an easy-to-understand error message for situations where the error is a system error (out of the control of the user and cannot be fixed by the user)?

Here's a few that I came up with, but it's hard to tell what works well:

  • A system error has occurred and the action you have requested could not be completed. (too vague, does not let the user know they cannot fix it).

  • There was a problem (action) your (object) and it is beyond your control. (makes the user feel helpless).

Any suggestions as to the best way to word such a message?

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2 Answers

up vote 6 down vote accepted

MailChimp has some advice on writing a failure message in their Voice & Tone guide.

  • Be straightforward. Explain what's going on right away. Be calm.
  • Don’t use exclamation points or alarming words like “alert” or "immediately."
  • Be serious. Don’t joke around with frustrated people.
  • If possible, offer a solution or next step.

They included a generic, example error message, but it really depends on what went wrong (or how much the system knows about what went wrong) and whether a next step can be offered to the user (e.g., restart the app, browse the archives, request an email when we're back online).

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Voice & Tone is a great site! Thanks for sharing! –  F21 Nov 30 '11 at 22:17
    
I found out about it from Rahul in the chat room. –  Patrick McElhaney Nov 30 '11 at 22:31
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I think here you can find the answer to your question: Stackoverflow - How does one write good error messages

My main points are (in case of a system for IT guys):

  • admit that it is the systems fault, never say that the user did something wrong
  • provide possible solution
  • offer some help
  • offer the opportunity to send the error message/description

But really, it depends on the users of the system - who is it for?

Is it for financial people? Is it for marketing experts? Is it for IT faces? Is it for young people? Always consider the living language of your users, and phrase your sentence accordingly.

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