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!