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Avoid this common error

by Meghan Casey on March 25th, 2010

 I had an interesting twiscussion with my favorite grammar guru Grammar Girl the other day. Take a look:

(click to see full size image)
The error of our ways
Many people in the business of creating websites think of error messages (and other user interface copy) as back-end technology mumbo jumbo, and therefore somebody else’s job. Not true! Error messages are content, too.
As such, they deserve the same attention as any of the other user-facing words on your site. Grammar Girl’s puzzlement over her readers thinking she writes the error messages raises an interesting point. Especially because she goes on to say that “marketing” writes "a lot of the user-interface text."
Why interface copy but not error messages?
I put those two things in the same category: Content that’s often written with the back-end systems in mind, rather than the end users, and content that gets ignored until the last minute. In other words, content that leaves programmers scrambling to whip something up quickly before a site goes live. Left to scramble, programmers don’t have time to think about what would really help the user do whatever it is they came to your website to do.
I would like to amend my comment to Grammar Girl that suggests programmers shouldn’t be the ones writing error messages. I actually don’t think it matters who writes them as long as they are focused on users needs.
And I’ll be the first to admit planning for and writing error messages is not the sexiest of web writing tasks. But it can be one of the most important. A frustrating experience on your website just gives users an excuse to hit the black button or click on that red x.
Blast from the past
This brief exchange with Grammar Girl reminded me of this gem of a blog post that Brain Traffic’s Erin Anderson wrote last year showing the differences between bad and pretty awesome error messages. You’ll find tips like these to help ensure your error messages are carefully crafted with the user in mind:
  • Tell users what the problem is.
  • Follow up with what they can do to fix it (if anything).
  • Avoid alarmist phrases like “failure” and “fatal.”
Check it out!


  • http://www.geekgirlsguide.com Meghan Wilker


    But you totally should have titled it, “Avoid this fatal error failure.”

  • catherine

    Thought you might be amused to know that at the end of your post I encountered a very pink and bold message informing me that a browser setting was preventing me from logging in, but to its credit it also tells me how to fix this.

    Your point is an excellent one. I am constantly amazed at how utterly useless error messages are, and even the ones filled with techy gibberish seem to provide no insight to the fixit people.

  • http://OnlineMarketerBlog.com/ DJ Francis

    I'd go further and say this is actually a great opportunity. Error messages can be quite funny (think digg or Tr.im, etc) and support brand messaging – even create more rapport.

    If you haven't seen it, check out this post by Ian Sohn: http://www.flaggedforfollowup.com/2010/03/new-s... It's a great reminder that even the most mundane content – error messages, unsubscribe pages, and many more – all contain opportunities. It's just a matter of seizing them.

    Great post!

  • Silvia

    Great point! Recently I was trying to re-write Drupal error messages in their search module… but getting developers to send me the full list was totally another story. I feel that this apparent difficulty in finding all error message texts proves that they are not perceived as 'copy text'… to the detriment of the poor reader who stumbles upon them.

  • http://www.blue-ferret.com/ BlueFerret

    I actually like writing little content pieces like error messages. They're good points to help keep readers off the fence of uncertainty. Don't take long either.

    I have a question in my initial project research about them. Once in a while that will pay off. Though typically it gets down to, “Hey, were we supposed to put something in there?”

  • http://prosekiln.com/ Melanie S.

    Such a great point. This is a typical content problem: “that” type of content is “someone else's” problem. Which, unfortunately, makes it the user's problem when the proverbial ball gets dropped.

  • PC Load Letter
  • CyberbardBarry (Toronto)

    I don’t have anything to add but was just so happy to find like-minded people/writers, esp on this topic! I think I’m really gonna like your site and blog…
    CyberbardBarry (Toronto)

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