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What would be the best wording for a generic error message?

With generic error message I mean a message for an error that has occured but there are no details on what the error is or how to recover from it.

It will be used exclusively as a fallback solution when it is not possible to determine the error either because the server did not sent any additional details or there is a "probable" timeout... and other similar edge cases.

It should be aimed to minimize the amount of frustration/anger.

I've read a few threads but none of them seems to be 100% relevant

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An unexpected error occurred... –  Justin Meiners May 4 '13 at 0:07

9 Answers 9

up vote 33 down vote accepted

A good error message should:

  1. Let you know what the problem is.
  2. Make you feel like there is something that you can do about it.
  3. Speak like a human, and be a consistent extension of the personality of the rest of the application.

For generic error messages, you can't do much about the first point, but you can do something about the other two.

Do something that lets the user know that the problem isn't being ignored. Let them take some action such as submit the logs or send an error report. Alternatively let them know that automatic action has already been taken and that your technical staff have automatically been notified that this error occurred and are working on it.

Then in how you tell them, you should express the message in human speak and keep the tone consistent with the rest of the site (which should be appropriate for your audience). If your site is playful, use a playful error message. If it is a medical service, make it completely professional.

So examples are:

Oops! Something went wrong!
Help us improve your experience by sending an error report

or

The application has encountered an unknown error.
It doesn't appear to have affected your data, but our technical staff have been automatically notified and will be looking into this with the utmost urgency.

or

Damn gerbils have stopped running again! Someone has been dispatched to poke them with a sharp stick.

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The first is very good. I am not sure the second one is reassuring. ..too long too technical it speaks about data of the user brrrr i am afraid. ..and for the last one i think the "again" word is not necessary it is negative for the application and stress the use for the future. ..transparency yes but not too much.... –  pierre lebailly May 3 '13 at 17:01
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@pierrelebailly I'd have to say for the third one it depends on the website. For example, a site like thinkgeek.com or sparkfun.com attracts a lot of... well geeks for lack of a better word, who understand that stuff happens, especially in a tech world. It's also a bit humorous to picture my datacenter's power being generated by a herd of tired gerbals. –  BigHomie May 3 '13 at 18:11
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@MDMoore313 In tjis case it is clear the sound of the message is in line with the type of user...:-) –  pierre lebailly May 3 '13 at 19:16
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The latter one is funny, but is offensive to gerbils. –  devios May 9 '13 at 19:47
    
These are great, I think you just have to keep in mind who your target demographic are. Corporate suites might not be as impressed with "gerbil" or even "oops" lines, but the rest of us normal people would like it. LittleBigDetails.tumblr.com tends to have good/fun examples of these types of things. –  avi Mar 5 at 14:11

Depending on the tone of the application you can use something like:

"Oops! Something went wrong." - Send error report to help us improve your experience

"The application has encountered an unknown error." - Send error report for diagnosis.

Google chrome uses a generic error: " Google Chrome quit unexpectedly." - Ignore, Report or Reopen.

You can follow up the dialogues with whatever preventive measure you took, "The system needs to shut down" "The service restarted" or whatever fits in context.

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Actually, it's OS X that shows the error message. –  Undo May 27 '13 at 4:20

The best error message is always about context, probably the best message would be:

  • Relevant for the user
  • Honest (you can make jokes but is has to be obvious)
  • Not embarrassing for the user
    • Therefore blaming the systems not the user
  • Telling her what to do next (or making it obvious)
  • Self explanatory on how to do so
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To the other excellent answers, I just want to add that I think the word "unknown" should be avoided in user-facing error messages, because it makes it sound like nobody has any idea what went wrong. If the user isn't responsible for fixing the problem, then there's no need to bore them with the details, but the message should imply that the people who are responsible have the details. (Even if that's not 100% true.)

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Perhaps Unexpected would be better than Unknown. Even something like Unavoidable, which would be totally meaningless, is probably better than Unknown. –  Kevin Fegan May 3 '13 at 22:12
    
Just say it has encountered an error. Don't need a modifier. –  srgtick May 15 at 21:23

Ben's got a very good article on Writing Error Messages

The 4 H’s of Writing Error Messages

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Based on information from Donald Norman's book The Design of Everyday Things, which I highly recommend, it is important to give people feedback on what they should do when an error occurs. A useful generic error message is: Sorry an error occurred. Please click here. In this message, click here is a link to the home page where the user can restart.

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Welcome to UX.se! Make sure you check out the faq and tour pages to get the best experience! –  norabora May 3 '13 at 21:33
    
That message should say Please click here to restart, otherwise the user may assume that only the last (erroring) operation will need to be redone. Without full details of what the link does they may end up disappointed if not actually cross. –  Andrew Leach Jun 21 '13 at 6:32

I think it's also important to speak with an somewhat apologetic tone (not over-the-top) where possible.

Not like an actual apology, but more an expression of regret. A simple 'Sorry for the inconvenience...' or 'Sorry this isn't working...' can help the user feel that it's not their own fault (even if it is).


Edit:

@norabora - Any research to back up why such a tone might be important? Or examples of where that is currently in use? –

Partly, it's something I just feel strongly about. But there is a good deal of discussion and research about it.

Here is another post on ux.stackexchange: Should error messages apologize? that contains lots of references about the topic.

And this article is a summary of the topic.

Here is a study on Computer Apology: The Effect of the Apologetic Feedback on Users in Computerized Environment [PDF].

Also, here is a study on The Effect Of Apologetic Error Messages And Mood States On Computer Users' Self-Appraisal Of Performance..

There are some relevant quotes from these studies and other articles and research papers in this answer on ux.stackexchange.

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Any research to back up why such a tone might be important? Or examples of where that is currently in use? –  norabora May 3 '13 at 22:46

A generic error message should be:

"The server encountered an error processing the request."

Please try again, Sorry for the trouble.

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In user tests of forms we often see people get slightly nervous when we use negative words in error messages - using words like "error" or "prohibited" has a subtle but negative effect on the experience. So we tend to avoid negative words when it is the user's fault

  1. we show that something went wrong by using an appropriate color (orange or yellow) next to the field
  2. we just look forward and say "Please fill out this mandatory field" or "Please enter a number between 1 and 10".

When it's the system's fault we use the generic rule:

  1. state what went wrong (keep it short, people are often ok to just know that there was a technical error)
  2. say what the user can do about it.

We tend to use more negative words so that it's intuitively clear that something went wrong "Error: system could not retrieve xyz, [someone who can fix the problem] was informed. Please try again in about 10 minutes, sorry for the inconvenience"

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