Frequency of Error is Important in User Interface

(I published this in 2020, but it had been sitting as a draft since 2015. I presume this error set from Microsoft may not be relevant, although the idea could be.)

Late last week, right after I stopped running with scissors, I picked up a Microsoft Surface 3 tablet running Windows 10.

Over the weekend I’ve endured many problems and many cutesy error messages that stopped being cute after the first time. Here is one message I’ve seen too many times now:

The server stumbled. We all have bad days.

That is only a neat error message if I saw it once in, say, 6 months. Since I saw that message many times over the course of 3 days, it backfired. I no longer buy the “We all have bad days,” business. I think that the Surface has a bad day, every day. As for the stumble, sure, the Surface stumbled like a drunk falling face-first into bed.

The Surface never regained its footing after a stumble, and the error messages never helped me figure out how to diagnose and recover from the error.

I’ve lost trust in the system because of an accumulation of the errors and the inappropriate error messaging.

It didn’t have to be that way.

Imagine if instead the application counted its errors, perhaps of each type, and adapted the tone and directness of the error message based on how often the error message appears. Instead of “The server stumbled. We all have bad days,” what if there was a progression, like this:

  1. The server stumbled. We all have bad days. (First instance.)
  2. The server tripped up again. Sorry about that! (2nd and 3rd instances.)
  3. The server is having a problem. So sorry! (4th and 5th instances.)
  4. Our server failed to handle your request. We’ve logged all the failures, and technicians will be looking into it. If you’d like to speak to someone, please contact Support at +1 (123) 456-7890. (Every instance after 5.)

The point being, sure, if the error is very rare, you might try playful language. But after the error becomes a frequent problem, the error message can both offer another path and it can take ownership of the problem.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *