Timid error messages

~ 23 September 2005 ~

So yesterday I’m buying toner at a Yahoo-powered store and I get this message during checkout:

Picture showing the message: 'You don't seem to have supplied your email address.'

“I don’t seem to” have provided my email address? Either I did or I didn’t — which was it?

Being polite to users doesn’t necessarily mean being submissive. For some bizarre reason (here in the U.S. at least), we tend to be evasive with invitations and course-correcting instruction. How often have you heard such phrases as “I would suggest we…” or “We would like to welcome you…” Either you would or you wouldn’t — which is it? How about “I suggest we…” and “We welcome you…” instead?

Likewise in a web environment, be assertive. Assist the user by being frank, not by lacing messages with such timid phrasing as “would”, “should”, and “seem to”. The same advice extends to those who write copy in a marketing environment.

All this talk reminds me of Martha’s unassertive role in Wednesday’s premiere of “The Apprentice: Martha Stewart”. “You’ll be invited to the conference room where someone will be asked not to return” about sums up her entire performance. Sorry Martha, it’s simply “You’re fired!”



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1   AkaXakA ~ 23 September 2005 at 07:26 AM

It’s not timid, it’s politeness. I quite enjoy it actually, though “where someone will be asked not to return” is a bit over the top.

2   alexr ~ 23 September 2005 at 09:51 AM

Software contains bugs, whether it is in a web environment or not, so, let’s not lie to the user and pretend we can be assertive.

If the user did enter the information but the parsing algorithm was wrong, then being assertive (“Your e-mail address is invalid”) would cause useless irritations.

3   Matt Wilcox ~ 23 September 2005 at 09:57 AM

Agreed. I have a strong dislike for evasiveness and procrastination. If there is something to say, say it explicitly and succinctly.

All that ‘polite’ waffle actually changes the meaning of the message being communicated; “someone will be asked not to return” implies they have the choice of whether to return or not - it implies dialogue, not an irrevocable decision.

Indirect waffling should not be confused with politness.

4   Matt Wilcox ~ 23 September 2005 at 10:04 AM

alexr - I disagre. Software is expected to work, and so should deliver assertive messages. I find the idea that the programmer assume there may be an error in their code and to then allow for that in error messages to be much more annoying. Either I entered the mail address or I didn’t, and telling me in a vague kind of way that something went wrong and perhaps it was me or perhaps it was the code or perhaps it was the e-mail stealing leprichauns doesn’t help me. It’s not a specific problem I can address, because I wasn’t given a specific problem.

5   Dave Simon ~ 23 September 2005 at 10:07 AM

The vague nature of “You don’t seem to have provided an email address” is begging for trouble.

I can see my dad reading that and getting nervous about the transaction. He would reason that if they can’t tell whether or not the email address is there, how can they assure that my credit card number is safe?

Just say it! Obviously, there was no email address, so say it! You can still do it politely, “Please provide your email address.”

Perhaps you go a bit further and explain WHY they need an email address. “We need your email address to send your reciept and to keep you up to date on your purchase’s status.”

6   Cameron Moll ~ 23 September 2005 at 10:11 AM

Alexr - I’m interested to know why messages that don’t beat around the bush cause irritations?

Also, a parsing algorithm being incorrect isn’t cause for an catch-all error message. Imagine something like, “You may have entered a correct email, but because our parsing algorithm may be erroneous, we need you to try your email again.”

7   kirkaracha ~ 23 September 2005 at 10:25 AM

You can be direct and polite:

Please enter your email address

8   Dennis West ~ 23 September 2005 at 10:52 AM

You are so right! We just recently switched banks to Washington Mutual, and they SO try to make the experience casual and personal, that it actually took me a bit to re-learn how to use their stinking ATM machine. The first thing they ask is, “What language would you like to speak in?” And then when they ask you if you want a receipt, instead of Yes or No it’s, “Sure” or “No thanks”.

I’d much prefer if they’d quit trying to get me to bond with their machine and just let me go the most intuitive route.

9   Mike ~ 23 September 2005 at 11:19 AM

I have been a programmer for many decades. Not once have I budged when marketing has asked me to “soften” the messages.

When someone needs to follow a set of rules in order to accomplish something, the resultant process is either wrong or not, black or white, yes or no, good or bad.

What you’re complaining about and have been noticing in this nation is this pathetic political correctness which has spilled into the language, and its sad.

I remember the day when there were actually signs on some stores and places to eat which read “CURB YOU CHILDREN”.

Nothing wrong with getting to the point! This way, there’s NO confusion and everyone understands the message. And, yea, I was also disappointed in Martha. She was too accomodating. I believe that will change.

10   Peter G. ~ 23 September 2005 at 12:07 PM

I agree. A small amount of ambiguity can go a long way toward confusing people. The tiniest bit of obscurity irritates me when we communicate with people. Though I admit I make the mistake myself.

I wonder if vagueness isn’t one of the negative effects of living in a society so focused on tolerance.

11   Chad ~ 23 September 2005 at 12:13 PM

I agree! Don’t hint at what I might be doing wrong or what I could do better. Just come out and tell me. This applies everywhere. From the web to the real world. There’s plenty of time left to be polite. If I’m ever not paying attention next to the Grand Canyon, I don’t want someone saying, “It looks like you MIGHT be about to walk off the edge…”

12   Charlie ~ 23 September 2005 at 12:38 PM

“Check yourself before you wreck yourself.” - It’s probably better to ask the user to doublecheck the email address field if it’s not validating. That puts the responsibility back on them to ensure that the “sensitive” information they are sharing is “accurate”.

13   Ara Pehlivanian ~ 23 September 2005 at 01:37 PM

I think it has to do with the insecurity/personality of the copywriter. Some feel the need to be as non-confrontational and non-offensive as possible. Come to think of it, maybe it’s the marketing dept or some other group directing the copywriting who want to be as non-offensive to their clientele as possible.

Anyone wanting to know more on this subject should read: Defensive Design

14   Ini ~ 23 September 2005 at 01:49 PM

I 100% agree and had a similar conversation w/ a co-worker just recently. I’m an assertive direct person and prefer things to cut to the chase…did I enter the email or didn’t I? Am I trying to get to know the website better or am I trying to complete a task? :|

15   Mike D. ~ 23 September 2005 at 01:59 PM

I love polite error messages like this and try to use them whenever I can. The main thing it does offload some of the blame from the user… albeit in a subtle and almost unnoticeable way.

Instead of proclaiming:

“You definitely messed up and didn’t follow the directions.”

… it more says:

“I’ve gone through the form and in trying to process it, it appears there may be some missing info.”

The second is just much better and more polite in my opinion… but then again, I also LOVE the Washington Mutual cash machines. My favorite line from them is “Please wait while I count your cash.” Love it!

16   Cameron Moll ~ 23 September 2005 at 02:45 PM

Mike, you’ve made me wonder if context is important here. WAMU can get away with it because it aligns with their brand. For most of the other banks, however, it doesn’t.

Wells Fargo did similar with their automated phone service a couple years back. Had a male voice who spoke commands in a very personable way. With their voice-activated system, you’d speak your account number, and then the guy would respond, “Thanks. Let me check our records for your account… (pause) Okay, I’ve got it.” I wasn’t all that fond of it, perhaps because it didn’t strike me as being from Wells Fargo. Needless to say, they’ve since replaced the male voice with a female, less personable voice.

Long story short, someone like Flickr can pass on very informal — even over-polite — messages to its users because it’s a core part of the brand. With most other sites, however, I wouldn’t expect that as a user. (And for the record, Flickr’s casual copy is simply a bit too much for me at times anyway.)

17   alexr ~ 23 September 2005 at 04:36 PM

I’m not saying that we should have ‘catch all’ messages. I’m saying that the message can be specific while remaining polite. In that way in doesn’t imply that the error is necessarily the user’s fault.

The part that would be irritating for me with an assertive message is that it can be plain wrong :
1) I type my e-mail message but it contains a character that the webpage doesn’t like
2) I get a message ‘You’re e-mail has an invalid format’

Well no it doesn’t have an invalid format, it seems like it has an invalid format because the developers haven’t taken this specific case into account.

To pretend that bugs happen only in bad software and that we shouldn’t take possible bugs into account when writing error message appears a little naive to me. There’s no way to show that a program is bug-free with our current software engineering methods and in my experience, most software available today are shipping with many defects.

It’s not about doing sloppy work and covering it with vague error messages. It’s about accepting the fact that the programmers are human beings, just like the users and they can be at the source of the error.

18   Marko ~ 23 September 2005 at 09:52 PM

This seems to be a very interesting topic!

I agree about the Martha show comments…I get the ‘softer side of Stewart’ attempt, but the polite ‘you were fired and I am sorry’ letter at the end was too too much.

As for timid error messages..can they not have a bit of personality on their own, or should they be homogenized just like most other utilitarian things in our society?

Leave your answer at the beep. (if you wouldn’t mind)


19   Glen s. ~ 24 September 2005 at 08:52 AM

alexr - to be fair the error message shouldn’t read ‘Your email has an invalid format’ - this message is weak anyway regardless of its polite/not politeness. If well written (and direct) it should read something like:

“Your Email address contains the x character, which our system will not allow. The problem has been logged. then give further options to get back on track…”. It’s a bit long but leaves nothing to assume. It tells it like it is.

I agree that over polite messages are not really helpfull - and also agree that they are written by people who are less comfortable with confrontation. I always write mesages like that first, then go over them and force myself to make them more direct.

Good topic.

20   Dustin Diaz ~ 24 September 2005 at 05:05 PM

Hi Cameron,
I’m a developer on the Y! SmallBiz Store team. Just to let you know, some of those error messages can be merchant powered. However just looking at it, that seems to be pulled from our source. And as you might have guessed, some messages can leak through to the final version… so I’ll be sure to file a bug. Marketing and Content should be able to write up something a little more informative.

My biggest tiff about email addresses specifically is when they rule out addresses that have a + (plus) character. For instance example+tag@gmail.com - often used to filter incoming messages. But that’s off topic.

Hopefully with the rollout of the new custom checkout system all these messages will be solved.

You have to give award for worst messages to the beta gMail. One that says “Ooops. Our systems seem to be busy. Try back in a couple minutes”

21   Jens Meiert (of UITest.com) ~ 25 September 2005 at 05:40 AM

Interesting discussion. I basically agree to you, Cameron, but one really might settle for more “polite” or even “submissive” messages. The only cent I can add is that the error itself needs to be clear - error messages like “An error has occurred.” are the real problem. (Unfortunately, this should be added.)

22   Cameron Fleming ~ 25 September 2005 at 04:59 PM

I think Charlie (comment #12) got it exactly right. It can be pretty brutal to say “You typed in your e-mail address wrong!” On the other hand, “You don’t seem to have supplied an e-mail address” is pretty wishy-washy.

So don’t focus on what went wrong. Instead tell the user what they need to do to solve the problem: “Please give us a valid e-mail address. Example: you@example.com.” The actual copy could probably be fine-tuned, but I think this approach is friendly as well as informative and assertive.

23   Cameron Moll ~ 26 September 2005 at 07:29 AM

alexr - This is of little consequence by now (and perhaps of little relevance, too), but just as FYI in this particular case I unintentionally left the email field blank. So it wasn’t a matter of validating my address, but rather the fact that nothing had been entered.

Dustin - Glad to hear you’re listening in.

Jens, Fleming - All things considered, I do agree with some of the comments made here — let’s be direct with our error messages, but that doesn’t mean we can’t add the occasional “please”.

24   Mike ~ 26 September 2005 at 11:46 AM

I remember way back in ‘95 one time, when using Eudora on a Mac, I had failed to look up to see that I was typing my message on a screen that had no textfields. The window flashed on each keystroke until about the 10th keystroke, when an error box popped up. It said, word-for-word,

“I’m sorry, no one is listening to keystrokes at the moment, so you might as well stop typing.”

It’s a happy marriage of politeness and “you’re a moron.” I loved it!

25   T. ~ 28 September 2005 at 10:44 AM

Political correctness running amuck !

Plain and simple.

26   Jana ~ 03 October 2005 at 07:09 PM

I once encountered an error message (on a Mac, in the 90’s) that actually made me laugh. Don’t remember the exact error I committed, or the message in its entirety, but I do remember the last sentence verbatim:
“…This is probably a very bad thing.”

27   Chris ~ 08 October 2005 at 02:16 PM

Not only political correctness but in America there is this attitude that no one should tell anyone what to do EVER under ANY circumstance.

“I spelled a word wrong? Did you understand what I meant? Yes? Well then shutup.”

“It’s my life and I’ll do as I please and how dare you tell me otherwise!”


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