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Does the use of words such as 'fail', 'wrong', 'incorrect' and 'invalid' have a sufficiently negative impact on a users frame of mind to warrant the prohibition of their inclusion in the error messages generated by typical web forms?

i.e. Should we rephrase examples like these to just use positive words?

'date entered incorrectly'

or

'failed to complete registration, please see below for invalid field entries'

(PS, the examples are there to show use of the words in an error message, not to serve as examples of error messages I would use or things that need correcting in answers, I'm not looking for advice on how to write form error messages, but for information about the effect of certain words on a users frame of mind)

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What is an example of an error message written using positive words? –  pringshia Nov 20 '13 at 17:31
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"Your work is lost, but at least the database is still intact"... :) –  Ole Albers Nov 20 '13 at 17:36
    
please enter something in the username field? –  ColinSharpe Nov 20 '13 at 17:38
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Here is an example of a catastrophic error being phrased as a helpful reminder: pondini.org/TM/C13.html –  Bryce Hanscomb Nov 21 '13 at 1:54
    
"You made a mistake, but it happens to the best of us" –  Craig Nov 29 '13 at 2:07
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6 Answers 6

up vote 4 down vote accepted

You might be interested in this paper, which found that:

After the first error message, the self-appraisal of performance scores decreased in all groups.

Putting this another way: errors make people feel bad about themselves.

The paper also refers to studies by Fogg and Nass (1997) and Klein, Moon & Picard (1999), which found people who were flattered by the computer viewed the interaction as more enjoyable, and displayed greater interest in continuing.

This all seems like good evidence to support using a tone that — as much as possible — avoids being accusatory, derisive or judgemental.

Note that I haven't said "avoid negative words". This is because language is much more nuanced than that.

An error means, by definition, something isn't OK the way it currently is. In most cases, it's going to be impossible to communicate this to users without using words that convey the gap between current state and required state (e.g. "missing", "must be"). So the words we use in error messages have to be "negative" to some extent.

Similarly, the answer isn't as simple as "use positive words". "Positive" words can be patronising, vague and uninformative.

Perhaps the question you want to ask is: "what's the best way to word an error message such that the user is respected and cared for, and the desired behaviour is achieved?"

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I don't know about "positive" wording but you can modify your messages to be a simple statement of fact. "date entered incorrectly" is a bit ambiguous anyway. How do I enter it correctly? Your message should be - "Date must be in the format MM/DD/YYYY".

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Instead of "entered incorrectly" I would indeed suppose to give more specific information. "Please enter the date in the following format: 2014-12-30".

But when something went wrong, tell him it went wrong. Especially make sure, that it is a permanent failure and nothing that will work the next time the user tries.

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not quite what i was asking, the specificity or clarity of the error message doesn't wholly effect the tone taken with the language, i.e. I could write a vague error message with or without negative words –  ColinSharpe Nov 20 '13 at 17:39
    
IMHO "Please enter" is more positive than "you did something wrong". So: My opinion is: If it IS the users fault, write it positive, if it is a bug, DO write "Error" –  Ole Albers Nov 20 '13 at 17:41
    
bugs and development output aren't within the scope of my question, when that happens the user is often confronted by exception output and often believes they broke things! (of course in a robust application this will hardly ever happen) I am referring to the catching of the mistakes users make when entering information, using common forms etc. –  ColinSharpe Nov 20 '13 at 17:45
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Receiving an error message is a negative psychological impact regardless of phrasing, so I'd focus more on minimizing the number of times an error message is generated. If logs show that an error message is being displayed regularly, it's likely that something about the design of the form is confusing to visitors.

For example, "date entered incorrectly" errors can be reduced by:

  • Showing an inline example of the format you want

  • Using your code to make intelligent contextual guesses

    ("13" in this situation would likely refer to "2013")

  • Using a unified text field

    (The more people have to tab around, the more likely it is that they'll quickly tab somewhere and accidentally be typing in the wrong form field.)

There are lots of great books and articles about techniques to minimize form error messages. I'd highly recommend Web Form Design: Filling in the blanks from Rosenfeld Media.

When an error message is unavoidable, do be positive whenever possible. However, it's even more important to be specific.

Terms like "invalid", "incorrect", "fail", etc. can be frustrating not just because they are negative but because they can be vague. One example: "Invalid email address" vs."An email address must contain a single @". The latter message explains both the problem and the way that it can be corrected.

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I would say this is slightly dependent on your audience. I design a lot of things for Joe Public who has little to no experience with my product, or new technology as a whole, and therefore can be intimidated easily.

Joe is using the site I built because his employer told him to. Joe still has the morning paper delivered to his doorstep rather than his inbox. He gets frustrated when he comes home and wants to watch TV but it's on HDMI2 from his son playing Xbox and he has no clue how to get the game on. The last thing Joe needs is my product, some new, complicated piece of technology, telling him he's wrong and making mistakes.

Now, I'd like to think that everyone has thick enough skin to handle a simple error message, but for those who don't want to be using the site, negative error messages only reassure their negative feelings. It's been my rule of thumb to not use "error" messages, but use "help" messages. As cheesy as that sounds, I find I get a much better response when something goes wrong and I need to provide technical support.

Take your example of:

'failed to complete registration, please see below for invalid field entries'

Depending on the nature of your form, you could make it a more light-hearted message, something like:

Oops! You missed a spot. Don't worry, we've highlighted it so you don't have to guess where.

Or for a more professional approach, something like:

Please complete the highlighted fields in order to continue.

Basically, if your user base is similar to mine, you'll want to "be nice" to them. You're most likely not going to offend someone by using a negative error message, but with positive messages, I think you'll find that those who are weary of your product will become more comfortable and less willing to give up at the sight of an error.

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The short answer is yes you should avoid negative words and you should even avoid errors so that users don't feel bad in any way. http://uxmovement.com/forms/how-to-make-your-form-error-messages-more-reassuring/

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