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Here is a rather accurate description of an extremely rare situation, displayed by a program right before seppuku:

cannot handle the fatal error due to a fatal error in the fatal error handler!

Do such messages ameliorate or aggravate the user's angst of a software crash?

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More often than not error messages like that are created by engineers having fun. Personally I like them, but I doubt there is any research on them. –  JohnGB Mar 29 '13 at 15:14
    
Answered here: ux.stackexchange.com/questions/14512/… –  Freiheit Mar 29 '13 at 18:58
    
I am not sure if it was intended in a similar way but I encountered this error message while trying to troubleshoot in Windows 7 a while ago. I found it hilarious! I don't have enough reputation to post images, but here's the link. –  DrGuyBH Mar 30 '13 at 12:45

3 Answers 3

up vote 30 down vote accepted

This is something that you have to be careful with, because you don't know what your users' state of mind is when your application is crashing. As always, it really depends on what kind of application you're writing, and how serious your users are likely to be about it.

In the case of something like Google Chrome (as @Josh's answer contains), it's hard to say. Was the user browsing Facebook when it crashed? Then probably not a big deal, a little humor is fine. But were they in the middle of filling out their taxes? Working on a blog post that was unsaved? Trying to purchase concert tickets? All stressful situations, and if my browser crashes, it's probably inappropriate to be cracking jokes about it.

The style guide at MailChimp says this:

Be serious. Don’t joke around with frustrated people.

And that's from MailChimp, a site that oozes personality.

There's a difference between having a "jokey" error message and a more conversational one. Clearly nobody wants to read "APPLICATION ERROR NOW EXITING", but I think there's fine line to walk here when a serious problem happens with your application.

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Good points - I agree that the error message should always be sensitive to the nature of the application. –  Joshua Barron Mar 29 '13 at 17:41
    
Writing a blog post and buying concert tickets are stressful situations? –  Burhan Ali Mar 30 '13 at 10:22
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@BurhanAli, the failure itself is the stressful situation: I try to buy something, the application fails, and I don't know if I lost money; I write something, the application crashes, I lose my work. Generally, a crash while trying to modify state is stressful. –  SáT Mar 30 '13 at 14:57
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Clearly you haven't had the pleasure of using Ticketmaster before... =) –  Mark D Apr 2 '13 at 12:53
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Yup. I think the tone should be sympathetic and somewhat self-deprecatory (like FireFox's "This is embarrassing" start up message). You don't want to give the impression you're taking the situation lightly. –  Steve Bennett Apr 18 '13 at 5:37

Many applications display humorous crash messages (see Chrome's "He's dead, Jim!").

Chrome crash screen

The key here is that the application also provide means to the user to recover the application to some degree (reloading the page, learning more about errors, or sending feedback to Chrome). The ability for the user to do something about the crash, in addition to the humorous message, probably does relieve some of the frustration with a crash.

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I love the "He's dead, Jim!" page. –  Matt Lavoie Mar 29 '13 at 15:21
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Who is Jim? ... –  Austin Henley Mar 29 '13 at 15:48
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@AustinHenley en.wikipedia.org/wiki/James_T._Kirk and of course youtube.com/watch?v=FCARADb9asE –  André Mar 29 '13 at 15:58
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@AustinHenley, I think this one's more to the point. –  zzzzBov Mar 29 '13 at 17:05
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My feedback would be: write the damn code which figures out whether it ran out of memory or crashed for some other reason. –  Kaz Mar 29 '13 at 18:13

There is, I believe, research on making error messages more lighthearted and accessible (I recall having read it some point in the last 7 years of researching, but cannot recall where).

The thing is, an error message displayed to the user should indicate that a problem occurred that was out of the control of the system. It should provide any relevant information about where the problem occurred (in the page being displayed? In the core code?), without being too specific.

And finally, it should provide a route to progress - ideally both retrying and restarting. If it also provides some humour, or an apology, or an acknowledgement that this is an unusual occurance is a plus. It accepts that this is a bad situation, and bad situations are often eased by self-deprecating humour.

So yes, this is a good idea, and will improve the perception of the product.

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However humor varies vastly from culture to culture. I come from two similar cultures, 20 years in the UK and 20 years in the US and am amazed at the huge difference in the perception of humor, especially around sarcasm. For these reasons I would mostly avoid it. –  Michael Durrant Mar 29 '13 at 19:24

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