Each of us have to face the certainty that system errors will happen, causing frustrating disruptions online. Despite how great a service is, users might need to be prompted to go back to the beginning and start an experience again if there is a major fault. When an experience goes bad, designers should lay off the cutesy error page designs and try to help users in need.
Since the origins of computing, users have relied on error messaging to troubleshoot problems. A clear and concise error message can help a user bounce back from an issue and keep them engaged without losing their confidence. A well-worded error message can be the difference between a user continuing to use a service or jumping ship to another provider that better meets their needs.
When an error message focuses on being mostly funny or entertaining, it distracts the user from the issue at hand. It may seem like harmless fun but a frivolous, jokey error screen appears condescending and can make a user feel unjustly stupid or inadequate.
Here’s a hypothetical scenario: a man is buying a pair of expensive running shoes through an online store. The man is prepared to spend a lot of money and trusts the store is safe, secure, and reliable. He follows the prompts, enters his personal details including a credit card number and is about to finalise the purchase when he suddenly hits a 404 not found screen. The sarcastic error reads “Mayday, mayday! The ship has gone down!” and spins and flashes around the screen without offering any support. He understands things go wrong online but the clever graphics combined with the vague error add to the man’s frustration and he furiously calls the store phone number to track his order.
The likelihood of the man returning as a customer has diminished as he believes the online store has sabotaged his transaction by offering inadequate support online. He won’t remember how entertaining the 404 page design was, but he won’t forget how unhelpful the website was when an error occurred.
Back in 2001, Nielson Norman championed a set of guidelines for creating usable error messages. These guidelines stated that errors should always be explicit, human-readable, polite, precise, and provide constructive advise. Although the guidelines don’t directly condemn funny error messages, Nielson Norman stress the use of “polite phrasing that doesn’t blame users or imply that they are either stupid or doing something wrong”.
Error messaging isn’t the time or place for cracking jokes at the user’s expense. It should be an opportunity to resolve an issue, comfort the user, help them understand the problem, and provide useful information to maintain their confidence in a service.