Scrutinize Error Messages

When using a software the user is susceptible to trigger some types of response from the software. One of them, can be the error messages, those messages occurs when some operation failed or something unexpected went wrong.

Before even considering the hypothesis of an error message it is necessary to measure the need of displaying it. This means re-evaluating the experience in order to avoid the need for displaying an error message to the user. When this deems to be inevitable, their informative structure plays an important role:

- Inform what happened and the cause
The message must provide context, be straightforward and clearly related to what happened. That means providing the right amount of detail, avoiding technical terminology. Also, it shall be written in a way that anyone understands it. When informing the cause of the error, we should never blame the user even if he triggered it.

- Suggest a next step
After explaining what happened and why, inform the user of the means that are at his disposal to solve the problem. This means providing a way to give the user independence to solve the problem through a Call to Action. Or, if that is impossible given his permissions, notify them that somebody (name or role) will be solving the problem in a specific time frame.

- Find the ideal tone
Besides what must be displayed, the way that the content is provided also requires attention. Some studies have shown that error messages can trigger a physical response on stress indicators, increasing the cortisol levels. To determine the ideal tone to use, two questions shall be raised: How the user feels in this situation? If it is a complicated problem, being funny can be inadequate. How can have a conversational tone? The more the content is related to a direct positive speech the more adequate it will be.

Final thoughts
The structure of an error message is mostly formed by the description of the error, the cause of it and the next step with a solution. The content shall be clear, concis e, meaningful and not contain any kind of technical jargon.