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Let's say that we have a form which asks the user for some sort of tracking code for a package. So the user enters 33763, but there is no package with code 33763 in the system. As we always do, we need to tell the user about this unfortunate situation. Which of the following "error messages" is best for this situation? Or do you have a better suggestion?

  • Tracking Code is invalid.
  • Tracking Code was not recognized.

Note: Before someone suggests it... The standard in our particular system (or what little there is) does not involve prefacing error messages with "Sorry," so it might seem weird to start doing so now.

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Tracking code is invalid

Is it? Is it really? Is there no possibility that the code is actually valid, but not in the system for some reason.

Tracking Code was not recognized

Not recognized? Did I get the case wrong? Why was it not recognized? Was it my fault or the computer's fault or the company's fault?

Neither of these messages really help me identify the problem in a way that helps me move forward. Neither of them give me the confidence to know whether the code is wrong or the system is not up to date.

So, I'd like to see a message that tells me why it's not working and a few tips on how I might fix it.

Tracking code needs to start with 'A' followed by 5 digits

Note that this is actually the sort of information that should be given to the user before entering the code so that they know they are using the right code.

If the code is the right format, but not found, then the message should take ownership of the problem, not blame it on the user or the code.

We can't find the code 33763 at this time.

Then depending on how the system works, give more information, e.g. if there's a possibility it might work if they come back later. A phone number to call, or some suggested next step rather than a flat refusal to help further.

Indicate somehow that the system is up and running and that it's not failing because the computer is off or something, take a small amount of time to appear to be doing a search. There is such a thing as too quick a response!

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  • In this case, the same system creates the tracking codes. So yes, if it's not in the system then it doesn't exist. Does this impact the solution? – musicin3d Jan 19 '15 at 16:16
  • @musicin3d Well that knowledge affects what steps you suggest to the user to take next, but from the user's perspective they can't know this, so it makes no difference to them. – Roger Attrill Jan 19 '15 at 16:24
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I would suggest the clearer "No package with tracking code XYZ was found."

It's tempting to suggest a few possible causes as well, such as "Make sure you've typed the code correctly" and the like, but those might be misleading, and most of the time aren't all that helpful anyway: if you see the error message and it mentions the number you typed, a quick check can make you realize the source of the mistake without any need to mention that specifically.

On the other hand, if there are any non-obvious potential remedies, such as contacting a specific office that's not otherwise listed, then putting those in is reasonable enough, as long as you make it clear what situations they're useful for.

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