4 Tips to Create Better Website Error Messages

Facebook's unhelpful error message

So, this is a message that I recently received when I clicked on the notifications icon on my Facebook account. My first reaction was to laugh at the ridiculous simplicity of the statement. My second was to think that this is the reason why good technical writers keep the user experience in mind.

The ambiguous “that” in the Facebook message leaves the user wondering exactly what it is that they are not permitted to do, why they aren’t permitted to do it, and what they need to do to get permission if they still want to do it. I also found the message to be a little negative from a customer perspective. The same concepts and principles that go into writing a good 404 page should be reflected in error messages, especially in this case, which was more of a system error. The way this message reads implies that the user has done something wrong. Even if they did, good customer service says that you should refrain from rubbing that in your customer’s face.

Here are a few tips on creating user-friendly error messages:

  1. Say it plainly. This is not the time to impress users with your vocabulary or throw around jargony technical terms.
  2. Say it nicely. This means not making the user feel dumb (even if they are).
  3. Say it specifically. Be sure to explain exactly what the error is and what the user needs to do to correct it.
  4. Say it correctly. Of course, proper grammar and spelling are always recommended.