Who writes your error messages?

~ 27 September 2005 ~

Friday’s rant about timid error messages and the ensuing conversation left me wondering who’s writing all the error messages out there.

Thus, I open it up to you, the reader: Who writes the error messages for the sites/apps you’re part of? Since Mikey D has yet to release his ajaxy polls to the public, we’ll have to do this the old-school way (leave a comment).

  • Me
  • The programmer
  • The designer
  • The copywriter
  • Marketing
  • The project manager
  • The CEO (yikes!)
  • Whoever finds the error
  • A combination of two or more of the above
  • Other

I guess the real question then becomes, Who should be writing error messages?



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1   Blake ~ 27 September 2005 at 10:36 AM

99% of the time, me (the developer), which i hate! They end up being not so timid, and pretty blunt.

Then, when a client is dissatisfied, comments or complains about the error messages, I have to remind them that they either never considered paying someone for writing copy, or they completely cut copy writing out of the budget.

2   Ryan Brill ~ 27 September 2005 at 10:39 AM

I write my own error messages for sites where I have that liberty (much of the work I do is structured in a way where I can’t change things like that).

As far as the question of who should be writing the error messages, I’d probably go with the copywriter, as error message should not be an after thought, but should be integrated as a part of the site.

If you want an example of how I like error messages to work, go ahead and error my contact form (go to the page and hit submit without filling anything out). Not only does the user get a message about what’s wrong, they also can visually see which fields have the problem and can quickly fix it and be on their way - something that is very important when an error does occur.

3   Kevin ~ 27 September 2005 at 10:46 AM

Usually I (the developer) takes the first stab at them, because I know where they are and what they mean. Then, the copywriter clean’s em up. It works pretty well.

4   Andy Hume ~ 27 September 2005 at 10:53 AM

Recently, I have written them. However, they then go to marketing/PR who make them sound better and that’s where they get the ‘timid treatment’.

5   Andy ~ 27 September 2005 at 11:32 AM

I typically start off writing them, but as our CEO is “hands-on” he typically revamps everything (you know what I mean). In the end I usually relent to the guy who signs my checks. On a side note, I appreciate sometimes humorous error messages. It seems that too many websites are far too serious and can’t show any signs of humor (possibly even self-deprecation).

6   Shawn Parker ~ 27 September 2005 at 12:03 PM

I write my own error messages and they stay until someone else deems that they need changing.

I try to be straight forward but also to be positive. Instead of saying ‘You forgot to fill in a Name’ I’ll use ‘You need to fill in a name’ - simple wording changes that keep it so that I don’t word it as pointing out a mistake, but more as pointing out an oversight. Maybe that makes a difference, maybe it doesn’t…

I agree with Ryan in that error messages should be considered part of the website content from the start. They’re just so easy to forget.

On a funny note (funny to me, at least) - I put in a line of text on an error that said ‘the webmaster is being flogged as you read this’, just as a joke to myself, and forgot to pull it for production. Needless to say it garnered a few laughs before being pulled.

7   Geoffrey Sneddon ~ 27 September 2005 at 12:03 PM

Nomally me. In the case of YWDA everyone else was too lazy to do so, so I ended up doing it there as well…

8   Aaron ~ 27 September 2005 at 12:09 PM

There should be a share of responsibility between the designer and the developer to create useful error messages and have the form/ui/whatever react to these scenarios accordingly. All parties should plan early for these things.

Some marketing folks I’ve worked with know zippy about useability or the web, nor do they care to learn. They just want to get things done. I think its up to the developer and designer to conjure up a solution that keeps everyone happy.

9   Steve Williams ~ 27 September 2005 at 12:13 PM

Me - plus shouldn’t there be ‘the awful CMS default if you can’t be bothered to change it’ option ;)

Web forms and their associated error messages are generally pretty bad in my experience, especially the more complex forms that don’t clearly state what you’ll need in order to complete them.

The FedEx registration I came across this week was pretty awful - the US site allows you to start a UK based application, but then on page two requires you choose Canada or US for your credit card billing address…? So I found the UK site and got most of the way through the form before finding you MUST have a VAT number… rant over, hope you see my point? :)

10   Kim Siever ~ 27 September 2005 at 12:27 PM

Since I am the only one in our department who does anything web related, I end up doing the error messages. “Defensive Design for the Web” and “Don’t Make Me Think” have helped me to make my error messages better, but I am not going to say they are perfect.

11   Jonathan Fenochi ~ 27 September 2005 at 12:50 PM

I think that two people should come together to write the error messages: the developer (because he understands the error most thoroughly) and the copywriter (because he will be most capable of concisely explaining the error[s]). That’s pretty much all there is to it: understand the error, explain it in simple, concise terms to the user.

12   Zachary Jones ~ 27 September 2005 at 01:19 PM

I usually store my strings like that in a separate flat file which allows for different languages, and in this case, easy changing of them for the client. Sometimes I include a small utility for the client to change them himself.

The most advanced example was a script which detected which country you were in, and showed your error in your language. I suppose tourists were just screwed…

13   Keith ~ 27 September 2005 at 02:42 PM

I too write the error messages for the sites I do. Most of the time I write simple to-the-point messages, but every now and then I’ll add a bit of mild humour to them.

Like others here, I could probably do with a copywriter to help with them.

14   Alain ~ 27 September 2005 at 04:19 PM

I work at a fairly large company and almost every decision requires sign-off/collaboration/CYA.

On a current assignment, developers, business analysts, technical writers, and the project managers (yeah, there’s more than one) determined the error messages. The developers conveyed the necessity for the error message, the analysts and writers created the wording, and the managers signed off. Not exactly the quickest solution, but in the end, there was so much documentation that it was easy for everyone to be on the same page.

15   Brad Wright ~ 27 September 2005 at 04:45 PM

At the moment, the developers write the copy. That said, I’m on the development team but I’m also responsible for IA and usability, so it’s sort of halfway to the ideal situation.

I think that the person responsible for usability and “system” copy (e.g., NOT “marketing speak”) should write error messages. They’re the role most likely to keep the end user in mind when doing so.

16   Joshua Kendall ~ 27 September 2005 at 05:35 PM

For sites I am paid for I usually either write them myself or leave the ones provided by the hosting company (not the best idea, but the easiest).

For my site I write them (usually at the last minute). I generally keep all of the error messages straight to the point, and a way to remedy it.

My testing server is completly opposite, including errors stating “What the f*** did you do now?”.

17   Michael McCorry ~ 27 September 2005 at 05:52 PM

I write the error messages, unless I’m specifically supplied error messages to use from the client. The clients I deal usually tend to have trouble getting their actual website content together, let alone think of user-friendly error messages.

Being a one-man-show, I don’t have the benefit of having someone else who’s job it is to write error messages, but frankly, I can’t see what the problem with errors as simple as “Please enter a valid email address” or “Please fill in all required fields to continue” are. I’ve never had a client, or anyone else for that matter, complain about an error message considered too rude or blunt. The only real thing I try to avoid is the dreaded “Access Denied” error, favouring “Authenication required” or something a little friendlier.

18   Jason Gilstrap ~ 28 September 2005 at 07:55 AM

I usually write error messages for clients whenever possible. Helping customers when something goes wrong is an important part of web design.

Like others who have commented here, I’ve read Don’t Make Me Think and Defensive Design for the Web and would recommend these to any web designer/developer.

19   km ~ 28 September 2005 at 08:24 AM

The marketing dude here rights copy for error messages. Often way too timid or perhaps mis-leading, i referred him to your article on the matter.

str_replace(“Please take a moment to see if you forgot to enter your email address”,”You did not enter your email address”, $error_msg);

20   geeky ~ 28 September 2005 at 09:59 AM

Me (the programmer), sometimes with a little help from my boss (the project manager). I usually write the error messages because it usually comes up in the course of my programming. I’m not sure who should be writing them, but with a small staff we don’t have much choice :)

21   Jens Meiert ~ 28 September 2005 at 10:59 AM

Private: Me (the boss enemy). Of course. I’m not married and let my spouse clean the kitchen and write my error messages ;)

Company: Marketing staff, or product managers. There are also other people involved (so me, I sometimes conjure some error messages, too).

22   Joshua Estell ~ 28 September 2005 at 11:59 AM

I write my own error messages. Perhaps I need to hire a copy writer.

23   Olly ~ 29 September 2005 at 04:30 AM

Me (the designer). What’s a copywriter? ;-)

24   Justin ~ 29 September 2005 at 11:17 AM

We start the ball rolling (UI Design team) and then hand them off to a special person. She is in charge of making sure they are consistent within the mobile devices platform, they aren’t duped and of course that they make sense. She also makes sure they get translated properly :)

Yeaaa Moto!

25   Brian Barbutti ~ 02 October 2005 at 10:45 AM

I’m the one that write the error messages and I’m a developer. When the app is not of internal use, the CEO also looks at every little detail, including the error messages.

26   Mark Wyner ~ 03 October 2005 at 03:53 PM

I love that you opened this conversation, Cameron. I take a very active and hands-on approach to designing/building sites for my clients, and this includes how errors/successes are handled when forms are submitted. I believe this is an area which is all too often ignored or treated with little respect.

99% of the time I am the one who composes error/success messages for the sites I build. When I’m working with a technologist for heavy back-end lifting, I have them give me a list of all of the possible errors in any transaction and reply with well-composed messages. Since I can adequately communicate using the English language and have an extensive understanding of human/computer interaction, I am a pretty fine candidate to compose these messages. However, if there is a writer involved in a project (not a CEO, but an actual writer) I help him/her fully understand the experience, enabling him/her to author appropriate error/success messages.

Before I opened my own web design studio I worked for a company that had their system outlined, wherein programmers were charged with the task of composing these messages. And having seen many horrific error messages on the web, I have come to the conclusion that this is the case 99% of the time. Which I believe is the wrong way to go about it.

I think it’s always best for these messages to be collaboratively composed between the writer and the information architect (or whomever is developing the user experience). But above everything else, I think it’s high time these messages are afforded more attention. An error message lacking poise and an obvious course for correction or a success message without appropriate confirmation of a completed task can shatter even the best user experience.

27   Cameron Moll ~ 04 October 2005 at 08:56 AM

Excellent response, Mark.

28   Justin Thomas ~ 05 October 2005 at 01:23 PM

I’d agree with Mark. It’s important for error messages to be technically accurate (a job probably for the developer) and well written (a job probably for the writer). So they do need to work together. If they don’t, you may have errors that aren’t well written and may be hard for the user to understand or you may have errors that aren’t exactly accurate in what the error is really needing. The later has been my experience a few times. The “boss” wants an error message written a certain way, but because he doesn’t have a full understanding of the application and what exactly the error is really needing it ends up being technically incorrect or maybe not detailed enough. You don’t want that for sure, but you also want it written well enough to be understandable.

So yes, I’d agree that’s it’s both of their jobs to collaborate.

29   Zeerus ~ 06 October 2005 at 02:39 PM

I usually write my own custom error messages for my personal sites. For clients I leave the error pages in their default state unless asked specifically to create them. Otherwise it’s up to the content creator

30   Michael Murphy ~ 07 October 2005 at 04:04 AM

Unfortunately, I’m in the same situation as Andy (#5). Our CEO writes most of our copy. Although his “elegant” prose seems more like run on sentences and nonsensical rambling to me, his signature on my check is music to my ears.

31   Mats Lindblad ~ 10 October 2005 at 04:35 PM

I often write the error messages and I, just as often, get yelled at because I usually put stuff like “Oh, DB made a boo-boo” and stuff like that because it’s just soooooo boring and I forget to change them when stuff go live … ;)

32   Jitendra Madhav ~ 21 October 2005 at 06:27 AM

The errors must be written by a language expert. The people / testers / devs / designers / etc can point out the errors / bugs.



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