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This question is related more to a server side error such as a timeout or a database not being reached rather than a user error or validation problem.

Let's say we have a web page which pulls data from 2 different sources, such as a network database and a web service. If one data source cannot be reached we display an error message to the user and still display the data from the other data source. However, if neither cannot be reached how should this information be displayed to the user? Should both error messages be displayed or should one be shown and only show the other when the first is resolved?

Alternatively we could display a single error message explaining that neither data source could be reached (a more user friendly message of course).

In form fields when validation has failed all the fields that have failed are usually displayed to the user so they can all be fixed in the next try. But this is arguably still one error since it relates to a validation fail on the form submit, and it's a user mistake some of the time.

Since the errors described above could be entirely unrelated the should be treated as 2 separate issues and will be from the point of view of server side code. Which approach is more beneficial for a user and which is likely to cause less panic?

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I assume the only option available to the user is to just retry the same query again and hope it doesn't time out again? Or could the issue be caused by the request they have submitted themselves (such as searching for a huge range of items causing it to timeout, and a smaller query would likely return successfully?). Or is this an error that occurs that is outside of their control - such as the database being too full up, or a connection is actually down or something? –  JonW Aug 13 '13 at 9:56
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I don't see a definite answer based on the information you provided. In fact, I think that it probably won't matter much whether you are telling the user about two problems in one or two graphically distinct messages (but please do not bomb him with a second message after he has clicked away a first one), as long as you get the other details right. For that, I would recommend reading msdn.microsoft.com/en-us/library/windows/desktop/aa511267.aspx, it is not technology-specific and will help you making some good, user-friendly error messages. –  Rumi P. Aug 13 '13 at 10:08
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1 Answer

up vote 3 down vote accepted

I'd stand for one of the usability heuristics:

Help users recognize, diagnose, and recover from errors
Error messages should be expressed in plain language (no codes), precisely indicate the problem, and constructively suggest a solution.

Following the heuristic,

  • don't make user dive into technical details, display user problem, not server one (i.e. "Database is under maintenence" – so what does it mean for user and how it relates to his goals?)
  • suggest solution like to reload later, show useful links etc.
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