We are rewriting our desktop application and we are thinking of improving the error handling and error notifications. Currently, it is based on modal dialogs. But we have a lot of errors like "You cannot add a new item. You have exceeded the maximum number of items." with only one button in the message - OK. What I was wondering is there a better way do display these kind of problems? I read in About Face that we should get rid of message box that don't give the user any choice only have one button that closes the message.

So my question is: What is better usability - the modal dialog messages described above or a notification are on the top of the application that shows save state and notifications:

enter image description here

Of course, if there is even better idea, I'd like to hear about it. Edit: There is Autosave, so the user dosn't have to click the Save button and with the approach of notification area I worry that the user may not understand there is a problem with the save action.

2 Answers 2


Although it means writing a lot more code, you should try to prevent the user from making those errors.

The most popular example is the password field: as long as the password is too short, ther will be hint on it and the "save" button is greyed out.

If the user can't add new items, tell him before he tries to add a new one. Also always tell the user what he can do to get rid of the error.


  • Greyed out UI, and a hint at a prominent place. (E.g at the top like you suggested)
  • "You reached the maximum number of items. To add a new one, delete a unused one or purchase more item slots"

The text should probably be more concise and use bullet points to make it more scannable.


Ok, so this won't work for the add event, because of its concurrent nature. You could maybe still guess whether this error will occur. But if you can't would try to achieve my suggested behavior for the other errors (you wrote you have many of those boxes, I assume that not all of them are hard to fix like the "add") and stick to the message boxes for the uncommon ones.

That of course implies that the "you can't add" error should occur very very rarely! Think about it: If your users run into this error often and quickly, it seems like they actually want to be able to create more items! A different kind of error message won't make them achieve their goals.

  • I understand your point, but the error occurs only after the information is saved because we support concurrency and there is no way that the client-side knows there are more items in the database than a second ago.
    – Spac3
    Commented Jul 1, 2014 at 15:54
  • i added something. don't know if it will help, though
    – Lovis
    Commented Jul 1, 2014 at 18:59

I would recommend a page error message, not included in the layout but as an overlay, that is strongly visible and disappears after a while.

enter image description here

  • Thanks but in case of Autosave, that would mean showing this message on a regular bases. Plus the whole toolbar is hidden and cannot be worked with - and the user needs the toolbar button for Refresh or Undo to remove the new items that is the problem.
    – Spac3
    Commented Jul 1, 2014 at 15:24

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