Currently I'm working on a branch banking application which is going to be used for all banking transactions such as Money deposit, EFT but also Campaign Management etc. (Some user roles are directly customer centered and some are employee centered)

We are thinking of using a funny language while giving user messages (error, success & info) in CRM related transactions (Not customer centered). By CRM related I mean, there are some transactions which are related with the user's own. Creating a task, Updating a campaign and viewing a customer etc.

But I'm not sure if its a good idea. Even though they're not customer related, they are still in the same application and this could decrease the consistency of our product.

What would you advise?

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    Depends what you mean by "funny" but what's more important is that they are "polite, illuminating, and helpful" (How do I get users to read error messages?). – Matt Obee Aug 26 '14 at 8:53
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    Have you got an example of what you mean by 'funny language'? Are we talking something like "LOL, U haz no monies left"? (because I hope not) – JonW Aug 26 '14 at 9:02
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    Our business unit came up with the idea. They think, if we use a less formal language in messages, users will feel less stressful and feel more connected to the application. Luckily they asked us first before changing the messages. – Hakan Isik Aug 26 '14 at 11:44
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    message in jest, user under duress, program failure – jwenting Aug 26 '14 at 13:27
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    less formal is not the same as funny. – Gusdor Aug 26 '14 at 15:18

11 Answers 11

up vote 147 down vote accepted

When we’re dealing with Banking and money transfer, it is an exceptionally bad idea. Finance isn’t supposed to be funny, since it’s a very serious business. Instead, error messages should be clear and to the point what is actually wrong, and not some random fun message.

When a user receives an error message, she/he is already under pressure, since users don’t want to be wrong. Making fun of them or anything else won’t help the current stress the user is in. If you want to ease the stress for the user, a fun message could be wrongly interpreted.

What you can do is to make the error message have a nice friendly tone. Instead of “Integer expected” you could type, “This field needs a number”. That way you help the user explaining what is wrong and you lower the stress of the user, which is a good thing. However, please, stay away from funny error messages.

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    Completely agree with you. For more info on what's appropriate in which situation, MailChimp's done a great job documenting it in their Voice & Tone guide. – Vince Caregnato Aug 26 '14 at 12:25
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    I think as long as the message is informational and not just funny, it should be fine. But as you said, you should be very careful with the tone of what you do. You can't do funny things all the time, even in a less stressful environment. Just pick and choose when the appropriate time is. – Majo0od Aug 26 '14 at 13:44
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    @HakanIsik Thanks! "Our business unit" - let me guess... Marketing? ;-) – 4rchit3ct Aug 26 '14 at 13:54
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    I would also add that a 'funny' error message might give the impression that the site has been compromised since in finance that would appear unprofessional and out of place. Nobody wants to feel like their banking information isn't in professional hands. – leigero Aug 27 '14 at 5:28
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    I strongly agree with the sentiment that "funny" error messages would never be appropriate in a banking or finance application under any circumstance. EVER. Seriously, consider your definition of funny. I'll bet your team couldn't even agree unanimously on the definition of "funny." Will you have any foreign users who don't understand English idioms, let alone clever humor in a non-native language? Is anything funny when you're dealing with finances and errors occur? – Craig Aug 28 '14 at 7:26

I would say that you can make the error messages more personal and "human sounding" without resorting to trying to be funny.

For example, a message that says

"Error processing transaction"

can be translated to

"We are very sorry, but something went wrong."

"We are very sorry, but something went wrong and we did not send this transaction."

They key is to make the messages sound like a real person who is trying their very best to help the user.

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    +1: agreed on the concept, yet I disagree of the exact example. Once in a while my bank's site gives me a similar message and it is not reassuring at all. I do not want my bank to say something went wrong after I just clicked to, say, make a transfer. It looks like the bank has lost its grip on the situation and it is not sure of what happened with my money. I do feel entitled to worry about the bank's ability to manage my money at all...I want to be told something about the 'something' (lost connection, timeout,...) and mostly how do I get to know the status of the action that just failed – user17696 Aug 26 '14 at 19:22
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    Agree, "something went wrong" is not helpful at all. – Ally Aug 26 '14 at 21:24
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    FWIW: In our (non-banking) app, for unforeseen errors, we use something to the effect of "We've encountered an error. Our technical staff has been notified and will be looking into it very soon." We really have been notified, and do look into it. Trying to keep it generic, but let the user know that we know about it, and that we care. For banking, I would obviously tweak the message, but you get the point. – Adrian Carr Aug 27 '14 at 2:37
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    @RolazaroAzeveires Well, yes, of course there should be additional information / reassurances in a real life example. I was just giving an example of how the rather robotic sounding "error processing transaction" message can be made to sound like a real human. – Franchesca Aug 27 '14 at 7:28
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    @Pathachiever11: The extra sentence "Don't worry, your money is safe with us" would actually worry me more. Because apparently you have to reassure me that I can trust you, which typically is a sign that I can't. Now, something like "The money is still on your account." would be reassuring. – celtschk Aug 30 '14 at 10:32

"Funny" error messages in a serious (very serious!) application are likely to come across as tone-deaf at best. Also, bear in mind that an error message might be seen repeatedly. No joke is still funny when you hear it five times in succession and being presented repeatedly with the same attempt at a joke is like being stuck with any person who won't behave appropriately for the circumstances: it gets very stale, very fast.

I would most definitely discourage doing this and apart from the reason already mentioned by Benny, one must always consider the overall personality of brand you represent.

An average user has a certain expectations from the kind of application he is using. The definition of user experience is different for him in different types of applications and banking is not one of the fun to do types.

On a general note though, that establishments with brick and mortar presence have a significantly more pressure of presenting themselves in similar manner on both online and offline, and banking is one such domain.

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    term here is "corporate voice." A funny error message violates it for a bank or financial tech product. – djechlin Aug 29 '14 at 16:59

Without a more concrete example, let me just say... I suggest you tread lightly. This can be very dangerous.

Consider a single mother of three at the end of the week struggling to make ends meet. As she goes to pay her last bill she gets the following "funny" error message.

Whoops! I think you put in the wrong number, because that's more money than what's in the account! hihi

Beyond ruining your brand's reputation with that person, that in-your-face reminder can actually ruin that person's morale... with very real consequences.

Making human-sounding error messages isn't enough. We need empathic error messages. The systems we make lack the information (tone, facial and body language cues) we would get in a human interaction. So when there's a possibility for a delicate situation, we should err on the side of caution and use simple, sober, sympathetic and considerate messaging.

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    * sniff * even my computer is laughing at me! – Dawood ibn Kareem Aug 30 '14 at 8:12

Alright, I'll chime in. Here's the thing. "Funny" has no place in a financial application. It just doesn't. There's nothing funny about finances when there aren't any errors. There dang sure isn't anything funny about finances when there are errors.

So what about informal? Can anybody give me an example of an informal statement that is as unambiguously precise about exactly what it means, as the formal statement that it purports to replace? I'll bet you lunch that you can't.

So I don't think informal messages have any place in a serious financial (or medical) app, either.

EDIT: In fact, even with regard to non-humorous messages in apps, have a look at Designing for People Who Have Better Things To Do With Their Lives by Joel Spolsky.

Informal messages send me the message that you're not just terribly focused and serious. Which is fine if you're working at a hot-dog stand, so long as you don't get so casual that you wipe your nose then handle my food. It's not so fine if you're handling my money.

Think of it another way. Imagine you're a pilot, piloting an airplane equipped with a fancy software-driven glass cockpit. You're busy in that pilot seat. Lots of stuff is going on all at once. Do you want the messages you see on those displays to be colloquial, informal, "cute," if not outright funny? (But funny according to whose local regional sense of humor?) I really, seriously don't think so.

My point is NOT that using a financial application is equivalent to piloting an airplane (it obviously isn't).

My point is that cutesy stuff unavoidably makes you have to think harder about whether the message means what you really think it means. It unavoidably softens focus and distracts.

If I'm using your banking app from home, or at one of your ATM's, I'm not doing it because I enjoy ATM's. I'm doing it because I have something specific I need to get done so I can go somewhere I actually want to be and do something I actually want to do.

I don't want your app to be my buddy.

Informal communication (I'm not talking about casual dress Friday, here) is by definition less serious and therefore somewhat less trustworthy than concise formal communication.

In my humble opinion.

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    A funny Error message to pilot from flight computer after engines failed might make the whole last few minutes of life more enjoyable. "Fatal Error has occurred. At least you don't have to call that stewardess back tomorrow. Okay Cancel" – stephenbayer Aug 28 '14 at 16:29
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    An example of informal (but not funny) message from a real financial website: "Did you forget about us? We thought you left, so for your security, we logged you out. You can log back in again here." The first line might not add any extra information, but it creates a more personable tone to the error message, and suits the overall corporate voice of the bank, which emphasizes convenience and ease of use. – AmeliaBR Aug 29 '14 at 18:11
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    Granted, and good example. I would also offer the observation that the "Did you forget about us?" message is just telling the user they've been logged out of the account. It's not related in any way to their actual finances. In fact it's a message telling the user that "we're no longer dealing with your finances right now." – Craig Aug 29 '14 at 18:21
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    @AmeliaBR It's also not an error message, it's information. That's "You have been logged out due to inactivity." as opposed to, perhaps, "Requested transfer amount exceeds available amount in account." or "There was an error while recording your transaction. No action has been taken." The latter could even have something like "Give us a call at 1-800-PRO-BANK if you need assistance." tacked on at the end; that's somewhat informal, but it doesn't try to be funny. – a CVn Aug 30 '14 at 18:08
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    Good point, Craig & @MichaelKjörling, about the difference between an informative reminder about normal security procedures and a "Something went wrong" type of error message. All in all, I agree with the main point -- messages should be personable, easy to understand, but the tone should never detract from the information they are conveying. – AmeliaBR Aug 30 '14 at 22:11

Additionally, I would pose the following hypothetical: "Would you want your branch staff to speak in such a way to your customers?"

I have worked in finance as a UX Designer for quite some time now. I would also suggest you go observe the way the best staff members interact with their customers. That is the tone you want to set.

Also the language and tone used in the system will influence the way that staff interact with customers. If they should not be humorous with customer in a situation, then system should reflect a more serious tone as well.

  • I totally agree with the customer centered transactions. But what do you think about using this tone only in transactions that are user's own? – Hakan Isik Aug 28 '14 at 10:48
  • I could not quite get what you mean. You mean messages to be shown to the customer? – Esin Sep 1 '14 at 7:41

I will go against what others said and encourage using common language to make the application more friendly and personal to the user. Nowadays people do transactions from their mobile phones not just from home or office but other places. People go to restaurant and share the expenses through an app.

Being very serious only makes the app very boring!

That's my 2 cents.

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    @HakanIsik - At last ! Finance is just... finance - with a small "f". – Nicolas Barbulesco Aug 28 '14 at 16:02
  • And if some screw-up at the bank deprives you even temporarily of the funds you need to, I don't know, keep your electricity turned on or make payroll if you're a small business, I suppose that's just "Inconvenient" with a small "i"? There's nothing funny about finances. There are far too many extremely serious real-world consequences for it to be treated lightly. So, in my opinion, there is no such thing as "Finance" with a small "f". – Craig Nov 23 '14 at 1:08

Think of a company like Geico. I could maybe see messages like

  • Congratulations! It might be a long day, but you've already saved 15% on your car insurance, so let's see where else you can save money.

To stick with the product voice of "you need to use this product for a while but it's a big achievement to go through all the steps."

Errors are a different story. If it's an error related to something having nothing to do with data loss, transactions, security, etc., you could maybe use something casual like this, subject to the usual constraints to writing a good error message.

However, when dealing with a serious error this is the absolute last thing a user would like to see.

  • Unfortunately there was a problem and we could not process your transaction. Don't worry though, your money is safe and we'll follow up with you shortly for how to complete your request.

This is probably a bad message overall (it's verbose, not clear what "money is safe" means, etc.) but as far as tone goes this is about as casual as you can go.

In summary I would say

  • The most important thing is corporate/product voice, and
  • If your corporate voice does not emphasize clarity and trustworthiness when you move around thousands of dollars of customers' money, you should probably look for a new job.

I work in finance, and we are going through a similar exercise.

As a general rule and in agreement with others, "funny" messages are not really suited for financial applications. However, messages should be in a language that is common and the nature so the intent of the message is understood.

This doesn't mean that your application has to maintain a "serious tone".

For example, an application we developed shows a very neutral smiley when there are no more items in an approval queue, and this was the one feature that the users mentioned repeatedly.

One even said "How can I get the smiley back?"

However, the error messages in the application have a neutral language/tone to them.

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    Welcome to the site, @Burhan! At the moment, most of this post appears to be a general guide to writing error messages. You may want to trim it to focus more closely on the OP's question about humor in error messages specifically. – Graham Herrli Aug 31 '14 at 15:18
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    Thanks @3nafish - I trimmed it down to what I was trying to say. – Burhan Khalid Aug 31 '14 at 15:22
  • Language that is common to whom, though? If you're a bank based in Atlanta, maybe "common" includes some southern colloquialisms. Well, Atlanta is fairly metropolitan. Montgomery? Or Minneapolis--same thing. But what about your customers that aren't from there? What about your customers who may be from another country, or a customer with a spouse from another country? What about somebody from outside your region visiting and using one of your ATM's (if we're talking about an ATM app). – Craig Nov 23 '14 at 1:12
  • The smileys sounds rational enough, though. :-) That's pretty universal. Unlike gestures like shaking or nodding your head, which mean different things in different regions of the world. – Craig Nov 23 '14 at 1:12

Change your messages to the style:

me thinks you forgotta type da account numba, huh?!

And you will soon not have to worry about strange ideas from your business unit.

Any onther app this might be funny and you will find some customers who like it, but for the broad audience you hopefully have that is a no-go in the medical and financial sectors.

If the rest of the app works flawless, I would be one of the customers who like it. But on the first problem that occurs I would also ask if the time spent for the funny comments might have been spent better.

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