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I've seen websites that show messages like - Sorry, Something went wrong, we're trying to fix this ASAP , when they really should be displaying : 404 - the page you're looking for does not exist

One such example would be twitter , although they do mention that page does not exist, they explicitly say

we're going to fix it up and have things back to normal soon

Some even display messages like Johnny, you shouldn't be here.

In my opinion, all of the above are kind of misleading. Is there any reason a website should display messages like these?

Edit : to make my question more clear, these are the questions that spring to my mind when I compare these two :

How would user react to these two error message differently?

Which one is more user friendly?

Is it acceptable to keep the user in dark about broken link just for sake of displaying a pretty message?

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Misleading how? It might very well be that the companies displaying such messages are indeed monitoring their logs to find broken links and faulty pages. –  André Jun 24 '13 at 9:10
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Misleading since you cannot fix a page that simply does not exist. I'd think those messages will only be appropriate when a existing page is down/broken. Else, helpful messages such as you may have clicked a broken link should be displayed –  Peeyush Kushwaha Jun 24 '13 at 9:20
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In such cases, fixing the broken link to point to the right location would be a fix, right? Or, putting a redirect in place to point to the right location, if the page with the link on it is beyond your own control. There are many ways to fix the issue, I'd say. –  André Jun 24 '13 at 9:21
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Any site can really link to your site, so if some xyz.com links to a page on my site which does not exist , it isn't my fault, and I can't fix it either. All I know when such a page was requested is that my server encountered an error finding page that did not exist, and I'd simply tell my user that, also listing possible reasons for the error, so that the user can figure out what went wrong themselves. –  Peeyush Kushwaha Jun 24 '13 at 9:27
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@JonW when I ask for reasons to display a message giving the user false assurance instead of throwing a technical 404 error. I'm thinking more like how would user react to these two error message differently? Which one is more user friendly? Is it acceptable to keep the user in dark about broken link just for sake of displaying a pretty message? –  Peeyush Kushwaha Jun 24 '13 at 9:47

5 Answers 5

up vote 24 down vote accepted

You shouldn't lie to your users. If the issue is a 404, don't use language that implies it's a 500; the server's not broken, and that page may never exist. There's no reason you can't use user-friendly language to communicate the actual issue, however. Plenty of sites use 404 language that apologize in human-friendly language for the page not existing, and offer ways for the user to continue using the site so they're not stuck.

Basically: don't conflate being human-readable and polite with being misleading.

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It's also worth noting that you shouldn't say something like "we're working to fix this" if the developers aren't notified that you had the problem or have no intention of fixing it. A statement like that is probably alright for a 500 error where the owner (most likely) already knows the server is broken and is trying to fix it, but not a 404 where the owner may have no idea. –  Thunderforge Jun 26 '13 at 0:56
    
If the server can tell from the request that the link followed came from the same site, then it's a blurry line between 500 and 404. (Ie, the server should never have served up this broken link in the first place - so it really is an internal error.) –  Steve Bennett Jun 26 '13 at 2:03

For convience I call that pages "Sorry" and "404".

Definitely the "Sorry" page is more user-friendly:

  • it admits error is done by developers, so user doesn't blame herself for it and doesn't feel stupid or non competent of it
  • it appologises and uses human language, so it makes feel of the personality and humanity, not the cold dumb machine
  • it gives value, thanks and hope to a user (Thanks for noticing—we're going to fix it up)

So, the UX of error handling do not pain users.

But notice, it is not universal rule. It depends on context. For wide non-specific user audience it is just fine. For some specific user audience error message should be filled with technical details to help solve a problem (compare "Error 101 (net::ERR_CONNECTION_RESET): The connection was reset.").

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So, in the event of just a regular 404 error, although not technically or factually correct, but keeping in mind UX, I should be displaying the "sorry" message? UX is complicated :) –  Peeyush Kushwaha Jun 24 '13 at 10:49
    
This is the way to be user-friendly and bring good experience for user. It is not just fun matter, it is an element of business especially for e-commerse. –  Alexey Kolchenko Jun 24 '13 at 10:56
    
I'd say UX no such complex, but it requires to think different way, shifting from tech side to human side. –  Alexey Kolchenko Jun 24 '13 at 11:00
    
I think you mean audit. Or possibly error-tracing. Auditory refers to hearing. –  EnergyNumbers Jun 24 '13 at 12:01
    
@EnergyNumbers – sorry, I mean user audience, i.e. specific group of users. –  Alexey Kolchenko Jun 24 '13 at 12:05

Your question is interesting. It is correct that you should always tell/reflect the user the reality about what is going on actually. However the error messages are not that much specific or technical, because the users (which are non-technical) will obviously become frustrated and restless by reading such pure technical messages.

According to the Human Computer Interaction principle :

  1. Keep the user at ease and also

  2. Visibility of system status should be there

the option of using simple and less technical messages is correct.

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Its not clear to me which option you're suggesting.. –  Peeyush Kushwaha Jun 24 '13 at 9:54
    
Sorry for the confusion. I am suggesting you to use the more generic and simple error messages than the more technical messages. Using the simpler messages will definitely increase user's confidence in using the system and are more user friendly. –  talktokets Jun 24 '13 at 10:27

It doesn't have to be one or the other.
Also, the wording of the message is not what makes it user friendly but it's content.
Many years ago somebody joked about a mainframe that would stop with a message like ERROR NO.5. With the advent of the early user-friendliness the fun thing was that the message was going to be replaced by another saying Hi Juan, of Buenos Aires (Argentina). We are very sorry to need to tell you that there has an ERROR NO.5.
Firstly, in order to build trust, the message must convey true facts. This answers part of the original question: it the site is lying about the error, it might also be lying about anything else. Stick to the facts.
Secondly, about the message technicality or not, the user deserves a well thought answer to what they by sure are going to perceive as a defect of the site.
Also, the user will not devote to the error as much time as we are using here: she will want to move on ASAP.
In the case of a 404 a human readable text, like Page not found, should be the title.
Below it a nontechnical explanation would be useful for those who care about the missing page. May be some information about the URL and usable recommendations, maybe specialized for different parts of the site. No patronizing, like Check the spelling but information like "The 'site/flax/trux/' part looks right, but 'fluxodriagen' is unknown to us.
Below this, in a box and maybe with a different style (in order to allow normal people to know where to stop reading) the site can publish all the extremely technical details that don't undermine their security, for the geeks to enjoy. I suggest a much smaller font size. Here comes the 404, not at the top.

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For a generic - non technical user, he/she doesn't know what 404 error is. Some may not even know what an error on a webpage means. I've faced this with new users. For them it makes sense to be told that something went wrong in the most non-technical language possible. But here it is always important to specify the next step.

Say its a 404 error - you can give him an alternate link to click on, or tell him to come back after a while.

Sometimes, sheepishness (oops!).. makes the user realize that there is a touch of human in this highly technical world of internet.

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