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How Do You Get Users To Read Error Messages? 951

A BOFH writes "The longer I do desktop support, the more it becomes obvious that my users don't read anything that appears on their screen. Instead, they memorize a series of buttons to press to get whatever result they want and if anything unexpected happens, they're completely lost. Error logs help a lot, but they have their limits. I've been toying with a few ideas, but I don't know if any of them will work and I was hoping my fellow Slashdotters could point me in the right direction. For example, I was thinking about creating icons or logos to identify specific errors. They might not remember that an error is about 'uninitialized data' but they might be more able to remember that they got the 'puppy error' if I showed a puppy picture next to the error message. Or for times when finding images is too time consuming, you could create simple logos from letters, numbers, symbols, colors, or shapes, so you could have the 'red 5' error or 'blue square' error (or any combination of those elements). I've even wondered if it would be possible to expand that to cover the other senses, for example, playing a unique sound with the error. Unfortunately, haptic and olfactory feedback aren't readily available. I like to think that my users would remember the error that caused them to get a swift kick in the balls. And if they forgot it anyhow, I could always help them reproduce it. Does anyone else have experience with ideas like these? Did it work?"
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How Do You Get Users To Read Error Messages?

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  • by bytethese ( 1372715 ) on Monday March 01, 2010 @10:03AM (#31315198)
    Using Bluetooth to activate a transmitter in the seats of our users, we've had a 671% increase in efficiency when helping our users due to increased "awareness" of error messages.
    • by zach_the_lizard ( 1317619 ) on Monday March 01, 2010 @10:06AM (#31315246)
      We attempted that in our own organization, but the fact that no one read any error messages didn't change. All that did change was that we now had a large mass of grown adults who wet themselves. What we did find effective was sending the individuals to a kindergarten, where they would be taught how to read. Electroshock treatment continued, however, as a means to address the stress of the help desk personnel.
      • by bytethese ( 1372715 ) on Monday March 01, 2010 @10:11AM (#31315330)
        We also had the same issue at first, my apologies for not clarifying. Our version 2.0 system includes a small amount of absorbent material woven into teh seat bottom that can hold 50X it's weight in liquid. We now call the system the Electric Shock Wow system.
      • by HungryHobo ( 1314109 ) on Monday March 01, 2010 @10:39AM (#31315760)

        Boring story:

        The most memorable example for me was when I was working part time as a tote at a race track during college.
        There was some significant "technical problem" which was delaying the races.
        I was up in the cash room and the manger was on the phone to the control room asking what was wrong.

        She asked me to carry down a TV so I grab one of the dusty old little ones and carry it down thinking one of the displays must have burned out or something.
        I got down to the room and the woman who was in the control room was on the phone to some tech support drone wherever the company outsourced these things to.
        Turned out she'd told my manager there was something wrong with the "monitor" which had somehow translated to "TV".

        I look at the screen and bouncing slowly around over everything there's a big grey box.
        It covers half the screen and the only way it could make more of a point that it's there is if it was flashing in many colours.
        "Current monitor resolution not supported 1200*1600"

        At first I assumed she'd read this to the tech on the other end and there's something deeper wrong so I don't do anything I just hang around and listen for a few moments and it becomes very clear that she has not read this error to the tech, it's as if she has a massive blind spot where the error is.

        This isn't a little error like you get in windows whenever it wants to tell you about something and which users get used to clicking right through... no this is a fairly unusual big grey box being generated by the monitor itself.

        I can hear the tech asking if she can see any errors or messeges, and she says "no" ....(WHAT THE FUCK?)

        All the while the clock is ticking and costing the track quite a lot of money per minute.

        I tactfully hint that perhaps I being a computer nerd and a third year comp sci student who's worked tech support in the past might be able to help but she's one of those territorial types and won't allow me to talk to the tech so that I can at least read the error to him.
        (You know all know someone like her:she may not have a clue how to do her job, she may not have any idea at all what she's doing but it's within HER domain)

        So while she's being talked through how to let him remote in(useless in that situation I know) I lean in, change the resolution to 800*640 .
        The monitor goes blank for a moment and she assumes I've broken everything.
        Then it blinks back and is working again (now though some of her icons are off the edge of the screen and she starts panicing again until I arrange the icons so they're all on the screen.
        Now whenever I'm at an event and hear an announcement about "technical problems" I assume that it's really some trivial crap like that.

        And if I ever work phone support again I will assume everything, absolutely everything the person on the other end tells me is a blatant lie.

        Is it plugged in? yes? LIER!
        It it turned on? yes? LIER!
        Can you see any messeges on the screen? no? LIER!

        Why do they lie!??!?

        • Re:Electric Shock (Score:5, Interesting)

          by sammy baby ( 14909 ) on Monday March 01, 2010 @11:10AM (#31316370) Journal

          When I was doing support for a regional ISP, one of my coworkers figured out an ingenious way of forcing a customer to check whether or not a piece of equipment was plugged in. You can't just ask someone, "Can you check to make sure X is plugged in," because they'll say they checked already out of pique. Instead, he would tell them to unplug the power cord and plug in back in again, upside down, and would make up some hooey about how the power cords on these routers were flaky. Of course, the equipment in question always had a three-prong plug, but every once in a while the client would say, "Thanks, that worked!" and we'd know that he was covering to hide the fact that it hadn't been plugged in at all.

        • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

          by FooAtWFU ( 699187 )

          I lied because I was tired of the DSL tech trying to get me to configure my SpeedStream 5100A as if it was a 5100B (the latter does routing and gives it an IP address with a web UI, the former is a dumb modem, so it's a big difference) and I just wanted some darned login credentials. Since you ask.

          But that's just me.

        • Re:Electric Shock (Score:5, Informative)

          by houghi ( 78078 ) on Monday March 01, 2010 @11:30AM (#31316642)

          They lie because you ask the wrong questions. Do not ask if they see something. Ask WHAT they see.
          Another reason for lying is that they have been trained that aswering "I do not know" is wrong.

          I rather have somebody saying "I do not know." then somebody saying "I know". With the first I know I can go in babysteps and they will listen and do as I say. e.g. What do you see in the lower left of your screen "Uh, start" OK, click on that, what do you see now? Please read out everthing. The moment they are at Programs: Please click on programs, what do you see now, please read everything. At the end: Is that all or are there some signs below that? OK, click on that double arrow, what do you see now?

          Might look slower then saying :Please go to Start, Programs, ... But in the end it will save you time.

          Once I was asked if I thought they were stupid. The answer (al lie) was that _I_ was stupid and wanted to be sure I did not make a mistake.

          • Re:Electric Shock (Score:4, Insightful)

            by Hotawa Hawk-eye ( 976755 ) on Monday March 01, 2010 @12:45PM (#31317854)
            Telling a user that you're stupid isn't such a good idea either ... I would simply say something like "No, of course not. But I deal with users who have varying levels of familiarity with computers, and so I've learned to pace my instructions so that even novice users can easily follow them. Would you prefer me to speed up a bit?" That way you're neither telling the user that they're stupid nor saying that you are, you're "blaming" the "problem" on some other (potentially non-existent) person.
        • by cgenman ( 325138 ) on Monday March 01, 2010 @11:36AM (#31316748) Homepage

          I once had a user call because he "couldn't get into his e-mail." After about half an hour of being stonewalled on the phone, it turns out that:
          1. He couldn't load his e-mail because he couldn't run his e-mail application.
          2. He couldn't run his e-mail application because he couldn't run windows.
          3. He couldn't run windows because his computer wouldn't turn on.
          4. His computer wouldn't turn on because he had yanked out the previous motherboard, stuck in a new one (without a CPU, of course), and just assumed everything would work.
          5. Seeing as how this was painfully stupid, he didn't actually tell the tech support this for fear that the tech support would figure out what he had done wrong.
          6. And, instead of calling the hardware manufacturer's help line, he called his ISP.

          My second favorite tech support call was a user who was having trouble getting online, and no matter how many settings we changed nothing seemed to fix it. "Hardware problem" you suggest? Yup. Over the weekend someone had bulldozed the wall with her network jack.

          No matter how bad things might get at my current job, at least I'm not doing tech support.

        • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

          by shaper ( 88544 )

          And if I ever work phone support again I will assume everything, absolutely everything the person on the other end tells me is a blatant lie.

          Is it plugged in? yes? LIER! It it turned on? yes? LIER! Can you see any messeges on the screen? no? LIER!

          Why do they lie!??!?

          First off, spelling: LIAR, not LIER. Second, never ask yes-or-no questions over the phone. Always ask the user questions that force them to use their own words to describe things. I have gotten very good results by asking them to read things out loud. It seems to break through that blind spot that they have. More than once I have had a conversation go something like this:

          Me: What version number does it show in the "About" section of the window?
          Them: There isn't any "about" section.
          Me: Are you sure

        • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

          by not_anne ( 203907 )

          Why do they lie!??!?

          As a tech support agent, this is a question I ask myself every day.

          If a customer says, "My internet is broken," the very first thing I ask is "what error message do you see?" 9/10 times I can fix the issue based on the error message alone, without knowing anything else. But, if instead they throw some random words at me like "it says it doesn't work," then I ask them to reproduce the error. If they can't do that then it's time to shotgun troubleshoot, and I know it's going to be a long, painful phone call.


        • by mcrbids ( 148650 ) on Monday March 01, 2010 @01:10PM (#31318300) Journal

          Is it plugged in? yes? LIER!
          It it turned on? yes? LIER!
          Can you see any messeges on the screen? no? LIER!

          Why do they lie!??!?

          They aren't lying. They literally do not see it.

          Your mind is pelted with information every day. Vast, huge, massive swaths of information that make what goes over an OC3 pipe pale in comparison. Your eyes generate a super-hi-Def video stream chock full of useful details about your life and everything around you. Your ears, your sense of smell, all are being monitored 24x7, and don't forget your senses of touch, hunger, and numerous other "metasenses".

          There's far more information streaming into your brain than could possibly be processed. So what your mind does is exactly the same thing that your spam filter does at your local ISP: Your mind filters out information that you don't find useful before you are even consciously aware of it!

          Studies have shown:

          1) People will change lanes into a lane occupied by a motorcycle, even after clearly looking directly at the motorcycle! It's commonplace, as a motorcycle rider myself, I've seen this happen more than once! The reason is that the person isn't looking over to see if there's *anything* there, they're looking to see if a *car* is there. Since my motorcycle isn't a car, the other driver's mind actually filters that fact out before they are consciously aware of it, and to their mind, I'm simply not there. (thanks, brain!)

          2) In simulation, highly skilled, trained pilots were instructed to land the "airplane" on a runway littered with stuff. Garbage trucks, buses, big, huge things that were hard to miss. In only a very small number of cases did the otherwise highly skilled, demonstrated, and experienced pilots ever see the junk on the runway, even though they could be seen to be LOOKING DIRECTLY AT THE RUNWAY. Why? Because their minds were only looking for information that was already known to be useful, and filtering out the rest.

          3) Think back to when you learned to drive! Everything was bewildering, you were overwhelmed by details too numerous to process easily. Signs and lines seemed to jump out of nowhere. But somehow, it became easier and easier as your mind learned what information was actually needed, and began filtering out the rest. Your mind is trained to look for the red octagonal stop sign, and the street sign that, within your state, looks very consistent. But think about when you experience something new. For example, in my area, they started installing roundabouts where we never had them before. They were a bit disconcerting and bewildering the first few times, and I am a very safe, effective driver. (20 years, no accidents, knock on wood!) My lower brain hadn't learned to filter out all the details of the roundabout, so I had to slow down and process EVERYTHING until I had a chance to train it.

          They aren't lying. They literally cannot see what's clearly and demonstrably in front of them. The lower parts of your brain filter out detail and deliver highly processed, compressed information to your cerebrum (the part that's self-conscious) in order to save expensive processing time. Be gentle, be understanding, and accept that the reason why they are calling you is because they need you to see what's wrong and fix it! Accept your pay scale accordingly, and suck it up, because that's human nature, it will always be human nature, and there's not a damned thing you or anybody else can do about it!

          However, one thing I've found is that if an error or confirmation is very important, you put red lettering and make somebody type a word, such as "I will pay you $50", or "I'm ready to pay you $200 if I want to delete this" or something before proceeding. Make sure it's different for each situation! I used to just make end users type "confirm" or "accept" but they got used to that.

      • by Lumpy ( 12016 ) on Monday March 01, 2010 @11:59AM (#31317112) Homepage

        WE use angry midgets that punch them in the groin if they dont read the error message. One assigned to each workstation.

        works great, problem is the pay rate we have to give the midgets is 2X that of the positions that they are working at, except for management, we can get midgets to punch managers and executives in the groin for nearly free, problem is they have a high rate of false positives and un-necessary groin punches. Some have also escalated in severity, the marketing manager started wearing an aluminum groin protector, the midget assigned to him started bring in golf clubs and baseball bats...

  • by mikesd81 ( 518581 ) <mikesd1@noSpaM.verizon.net> on Monday March 01, 2010 @10:03AM (#31315204) Homepage
    and let out a big screech followed by the sound of glass breaking and it saying "Danger Will Robinson! Danger!"
    • by xtracto ( 837672 ) on Monday March 01, 2010 @10:39AM (#31315756) Journal

      and let out a big screech followed by the sound of glass breaking and it saying "Danger Will Robinson! Danger!"

      You may be kidding, but back around 1990 or so, when MS-DOS was still the mainstream operating system (at least in Mexico), my father (a computer enthusiast himself, Prof. in Biology) used to battle with his students when using some program (Microstat, Statistica, QPro or the like) because students did not read the messages.
      When something that they did not expect happened (say, a message telling them that they should append an = sign to process the equation), they would just block. He was also bothered that students did not read the programs instructions (RTFM!).

      Partly kidding, my father told me I should do a program that dictates the instructions or messages aloud. Now, back at the time I thought it was a good idea, unfortunately I was only 9 years old and was doing my first C / Assembler /hex-edit tests.

      Nowadays, I think it would be a good idea that each time a "modal" message box is presented in a focused window, all the screen is opaqued (as with Windows UAC) and whatever is in the messagebox is read to the user.

      Another option would be to make them write the exact text that is presented in the error, as a sort of Captcha.

  • Automation (Score:5, Funny)

    by truthsearch ( 249536 ) on Monday March 01, 2010 @10:04AM (#31315212) Homepage Journal

    they memorize a series of buttons to press to get whatever result they want and if anything unexpected happens, they're completely lost.

    Sounds like their jobs are easily automated. Tell them if they don't pay closer attention to error messages you'll inform their boss how to replace them with another computer program. ;)

    • Re:Automation (Score:5, Insightful)

      by EvilNTUser ( 573674 ) on Monday March 01, 2010 @10:18AM (#31315444)

      I know users whose definition of unexpected is that they have to copy text from a program they've never used before. You couldn't handle that with a script, but how these people have a job not requiring a broom is an eternal mystery.

      I don't think UI designers should try to pander to them either, because it will make programs unbearable for everyone else.

    • by L4t3r4lu5 ( 1216702 ) on Monday March 01, 2010 @10:50AM (#31315964)
      My work shirt [thinkgeek.com]
  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday March 01, 2010 @10:05AM (#31315220)

    Just put a timer on the buttons that won't let them click it for 10 seconds... but ultimately you can't fix stupid.

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      Just put a timer on the buttons that won't let them click it for 10 seconds... but ultimately you can't fix stupid.

      And employees will love you because now they have mandatory coffee break. Seriously, they won't read it, they'll do something else until they can just click the button.

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      10 seconds is not enough to grab a coffee, but locking my pc for 10 seconds sure motivates me to get one.

    • or Validation Code. (Score:5, Interesting)

      by 0100010001010011 ( 652467 ) on Monday March 01, 2010 @11:09AM (#31316362)

      I wrote the registration software for a student run job fair. Spelled out on the first page are a few ground rules "We cannot accept credit cards" etc.

      Every single semester we'd get some rep that "never saw that" or claimed we "changed the rules".

      The final iteration that seemed to work was a 2 - 5 digit, randomly generated 'validation codes' that was in the 2nd and 4th paragraphs.

      We'd often get the HR rep that would e-mail us:
      "Did you read the instructions?"
      "Everything you need is in the instructions."

      Occasionally get we'd get some irate HR rep:
      "You e-mailed me that they were in the instructions. I can't find them anywhere. We have to register now."
      (and this is where you play dumb)
      "Oh, I'm so sorry. They should be in the instructions. It may be a software bug. Could you please read the instructions to us". ...... "Your first validation code is: 23984. Payment methods are Check or Cash. No credit cards are accepted."
      "Do you have any more questions". (Although usually you'd just get a click after they hit the words "Your validation code is".

    • ultimately you can't fix stupid.

      You absolutely can. It's very easy: discipline people and if they keep doing it, fire them.

      It'll probably only take one person before everyone else starts paying more attention. In this economy, it's easy to find replacements (especially if the people in your company are really this stupid.) Lots of folks out there looking for something better than Walmart or flippin' burgers.

      • by schon ( 31600 ) on Monday March 01, 2010 @12:04PM (#31317218)

        You absolutely can.

        Sorry, no.

        It's very easy: discipline people and if they keep doing it, fire them.

        That doesn't fix the stupid, it just moves it somewhere else. And how, exactly, does this work when the stupid is in management?

        It'll probably only take one person before everyone else starts paying more attention.

        Bullshit. The stupid people will continue to be stupid, and blame you for not making their problems go away.

  • careful (Score:3, Funny)

    by JayRott ( 1524587 ) on Monday March 01, 2010 @10:05AM (#31315224) Journal
    I do like the ball-kicking error idea, but be careful which one you use. Windows can be testy and the last thing you need unprovoked genital damage when you are trying to fix a workstation.
  • Waste of time. (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Rogerborg ( 306625 ) on Monday March 01, 2010 @10:05AM (#31315228) Homepage
    Do yourself a favour and produce a one-click tool that collects all the info that you need (logfiles, version numbers, registry listings) and sends it to you. If you can make it 0-click, even better.
    • Re:Waste of time. (Score:4, Interesting)

      by Anonymous Coward on Monday March 01, 2010 @10:10AM (#31315300)

      Yep. Lots of software packages now have automatic crash reporters. An on-demand error reporter should be even simpler to implement. If they got an actual error message from your program, there's no reason it shouldn't be written to the log as well.

    • Re:Waste of time. (Score:4, Interesting)

      by MontyApollo ( 849862 ) on Monday March 01, 2010 @10:16AM (#31315402)

      The "one-click send me the info option" is definitely the best solution.

      What is annoying is that in many Windows programs (at least Office 97) you can't even copy and paste the error message text. Your only option is to do a screen capture of the window.

      • Re:Waste of time. (Score:5, Informative)

        by oscartheduck ( 866357 ) on Monday March 01, 2010 @10:31AM (#31315640)
        Try clicking on the dialog box, hitting ctrl-c, then opening notepad and hitting ctrl-v. It's non-intuitive that you don't have to highlight the text, but it normally works.
        • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

          by Bigbutt ( 65939 )

          Well, Ctrl+A, Ctrl+C, notepad, Ctrl+V

          You can also hit PrtSc if they can't figure out how to hit Ctrl and the letter A at the same time. Then open Outlook, Paste it in, and mail it off.


  • by John Hasler ( 414242 ) on Monday March 01, 2010 @10:06AM (#31315238) Homepage

    ...with no "Dismiss" button. The message would stay on the screen until the user talks to you and you tell them how to get rid of it.

    • by EdZ ( 755139 ) on Monday March 01, 2010 @10:11AM (#31315326)
      Or, have a psuedorandomly changing key-combination required to close the message. To find the key combination, they must read the message. Position of the key combination in the message also changes, so they can't just learn to look in a certain location each time.
      • Re: (Score:3, Informative)


        My users already hate the CAPTCHA text they have to enter to reset their forum password. CAPTCHA on an error message would bring out the torches and pitchforks.

        Several Firefox dialogs have a countdown timer, so the message has to stay visible for a certain amount of time before you can clear it. That seems a bit less intrusive. And there is always Windows XP's system-modal shutdown prompt, where the rest of the screen slowly goes monochrome if you wait long enough.

  • by cerberusss ( 660701 ) on Monday March 01, 2010 @10:08AM (#31315268) Homepage Journal

    I've even wondered if it would be possible to expand that to cover the other senses, for example, playing a unique sound with the error

    You're going about this the wrong way. You don't make the user remember, you make their colleagues remember. Supply your users with a 5.1 sound system attached to their PC and when the user encounters an error, the speakers blast "HEY EVERYBODY, I'M WATCHING PORNO OVER HERE".

    As I said, make it a memorable experience.

  • by suso ( 153703 ) * on Monday March 01, 2010 @10:08AM (#31315278) Homepage Journal

    I've often described the action of quickly clicking on ok on whatever window pops up as the wack-a-mole behavior. With Windows, I can't say I blame users for this behavior because the popups that come up are so frequent and so useless that they've kinda been trained to do this. Linux errors are usually more useful, descriptive and since the order of the buttons change from window to window, you have to be more careful. ;-)

  • Do away with them (Score:4, Interesting)

    by mcgrew ( 92797 ) * on Monday March 01, 2010 @10:09AM (#31315292) Homepage Journal

    There should be no errors. Period. Your program should not allow errors.

    Now, if you're talking about a programming language or programming environment, that's different, but someone writing a program using your compiler/interpreter would be expected to read and understand the messages. But even there, some efforts are lax and feebel. I've gotten errors in MS Access that say error n: there is no message for this error". Boundary conditions for common "errors" are handled poorly; end of file, for example. If you make your own next/previous buttons to replace the puny little almost invisible Access buttons, there is no easy way to determming the beginning of the file, and Access returns an error in a big scary "stop" combo. This should be there in a debug mode, but a user shouldn't see it -- and Access' docs should be a lot more clear.

    I'm not just talking about Microsoft, you're all bad about it. Well, not you -- your PHBs who want it shipped yesterday when the damned thing's barely out of alpha are bad about it.

    With a graphics program or word processor, for an end user to see an error message is inexcusable. If your users are getting errors, your program is poorly designed.

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by malkavian ( 9512 )

      Lovely, if you have the time and money to follow formal methods, but usually that's overkill. Which is why most programming languages have error trapping, which allows you to detect errors and handle them gracefully.
      There are many unknowns that can happen. Hardware failures, memory corruption, OS doing something it shouldn't, the malware on the system is interfering, the vendor changed the API behind the scenes and so on.. You always, always trap for errors, even if you don't expect them. That's what it

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by Phroggy ( 441 )

      There should be no errors. Period. Your program should not allow errors.

      I agree: errors should not be allowed. That's why, when the user does something dumb, instead of allowing an error to occur, you should display a message on the screen alerting the user to the problem and informing them of how to fix it, so that an error doesn't occur.

      Come on, seriously?

    • by radtea ( 464814 ) on Monday March 01, 2010 @10:50AM (#31315960)

      There should be no errors. Period. Your program should not allow errors.

      So what is a program supposed to do when the hardware it talks to fails or is not plugged in? Or when the network resource it requires is not available? Shuffle its feet and hem and haw and hope the user won't notice?

      Anyone who says "there should be no errors" doesn't know how the word "error" is used in computing. That there should be no BUGS may be a formally realizable goal (at least that's what my functional programmer friends tell me) but let me ask you: when was the last time you drove a car that had no error notifications on the dashboard? No idiot lights, no oil pressure gauge, no fuel gauge, nothing but a speedometer?

      Never, right? That's because all machines have a physical component whose state is sometimes unable to fulfill user requirements, and we need to communicate that state to users. We call those communications "error messages" in the software world, and they cover everything from "out of memory" to "printer on fire."

      On another note, I like the ball-kicking idea, but my users are mostly female, so it won't work. Recently I've had a bunch of complaints about missing hardware because they are clicking through the dialog that detects that hardware is missing, and then complaining when the main UI comes up and tells them there is no hardware connected. They never remember they've clicked through because they are so used to simply clicking OK on any dialog that comes up, a phenomenon that has gotten much worse in the past few years.

      • by King_TJ ( 85913 ) on Monday March 01, 2010 @11:33AM (#31316700) Journal

        I think the core problem is, perhaps, with the mindset of most software developers. They think logically and prefer a computer to immediately notify them about exactly what's wrong, as soon as an issue arises. They're also accustomed to the traditional way errors are reported, and feel most comfortable making things stick to "tried and true" methods.

        The typical user, however, doesn't see any of that as advantageous or even sensible.

        Take the example you mentioned, where your users were clicking through a dialog that detects hardware is missing, and then complaining about the main UI coming up and telling them the hardware is not connected. To a user, they've got a specific process they want the machine to complete, and they'd like to go through the required steps they memorized to do the process without any unexpected interruptions in the middle of the input. Such interruptions lead to them "clicking through" the boxes without reading them.

        So what would improve this? I think users would like computers to ignore error conditions until they're done with all input related to performing an operation, for starters. Don't want them to click through a warning dialog? Ok ... then don't present them with it until the end. (EG. If a printer is disconnected, either notify them of this state BEFORE they even begin inputting anything into the portion of your application that generates printed reports, or hold off until they're finished and they click "print". At that point, give them a friendly error telling them the printer seems to be disconnected, and their print job will complete automatically, once they re-attach it.)

        On the same note, *friendly* error messages are key, too. I can't begin to count the number of times I've received an error dialog box in an application that told me nothing useful. I know something just went wrong in the program, but that's about it. Some apps like to dump a bunch of numerical error codes at the user, with expectations that somehow, this data will get forwarded on to one of the programmers who actually understands it. In reality? There's a near 0% chance of that ever happening! The developers at most companies are insulated from the end-users by layers of "customer service and support" people. And what about apps no longer being actively supported at all? Their developers have moved on and probably don't even REMEMBER what those numerical error codes mean anymore if you COULD contact them!

        It's no wonder users just "click through" the error boxes these days! They're conditioned to expect the messages do nothing to help them.

  • Fixed Penalty (Score:4, Interesting)

    by newbe5 ( 1426619 ) on Monday March 01, 2010 @10:09AM (#31315296)
    We have found that the only way to make users take responsibility for errors is to give them a penalty for forcing the error to go away. For starters, where possible, the error wont actually close for them unless we enter an admin password to make it go away, and if they reboot to get rid of it (Task Manager is disabled on all client PC's) the machine will not open the application that crashed for 15 minutes. Of course, this all depends on the type of users you are dealing with, as more technically adept users wouldnt accept this kind of system, but after trying for literally YEARS to make users take responsibility for crashes and making sure the IT department is aware of them in order to fix the issue before it gets too hard to manage, these are the only steps that worked. Now, all of our end users are aware that if they ignore errors, they are going to suffer for it themselves.
    • Re:Fixed Penalty (Score:5, Insightful)

      by Jenming ( 37265 ) on Monday March 01, 2010 @10:39AM (#31315762)

      I am not really sure what you accomplish by disabling the software for 15 minutes. It sounds to me that if the person ignores your error message they get a 15 minute break.

      One thing IT people often forget is that their job is to make the other employee's jobs easier and more productive. This means solving problems without getting in the way of the work that actually makes the company money.

  • by BhaKi ( 1316335 ) on Monday March 01, 2010 @10:11AM (#31315322)
    Show the message in full screen using a blue background and white foreground. Just like a BSOD.
  • by ArsenneLupin ( 766289 ) on Monday March 01, 2010 @10:11AM (#31315324)
    Your brown puppy/blue square system works great if there is only a very small number of possible error conditions inventoried in advance. However, this is not what usually happens. Good luck with reproducing Out of memory in /usr/share/wombat/xyz/abc.php line 515 as a pretty picture or as a an extra smelly fart.

    Users have already trouble copy-pasting error message text into a mail (or reading it aloud on the phone), so how the hell are they going to do it with a sound or a smell? Well, the sound, they could still record it, and attach the recording to the mail, but you can be sure that the recording will be spoiled by the perp's coworker loudly sneezing or coughing midway through. After all, lusers are not afraid of sending in screenshots of error messages half-hidden by other windows either.

    No, I think the problem is not the messages (textual messages should be the easiest to deal with, especially when asking for support via mail), but rather the users. And to fix those, you just need a baseball bat...

  • by B5_geek ( 638928 ) on Monday March 01, 2010 @10:11AM (#31315328)

    I had done something very similar, but I kept it very simple for troubleshooting.
    3 colours: red, amber, green
    3 shapes: circle, square, triangle

    Another idea I was toying with was to substitute traffic signs: ie. stop, yield, caution, etc.. but I found that people are used to ignoring those.

    With my setup, it gave me 9 distinct error levels (more if I used them in combination), but 9 was good enough for me to track down most problems.
    Circle - Bad Input (i.e. data field entry)
    Square - Bad Output (i.e. printer jam)
    Triangle - Back-end (db/php/html, etc..)
    Red, amber, Green = error levels

  • by sjonke ( 457707 ) on Monday March 01, 2010 @10:12AM (#31315344) Journal

    Tell them that reading the message will enlarge their penis... which isn't too hard to achieve anyway.

  • by ip_freely_2000 ( 577249 ) on Monday March 01, 2010 @10:13AM (#31315348)
    In the late 90's our startup had HP as a customer for a new on-line product. One day, about six months after they had become a customer, we get a call saying our product does not work. At the end of a SIX HOUR support call, I got on a plane for a cross-country flight because we just could not duplicate or figure out the problem. At 7:00 AM that morning I arrive, and at about 7:03 AM had the problem figured out. HP had recently made a change to their nework removing the browser ID string when employees were surfing the net. Our product needed that information for some processing. Even though the error message was CLEARLY being displayed, not once in the previous day's support call did this get mentioned. "Oh, that happens all the time, it happens with all sorts of applications, so we just ignore it." We had a fix in place by 10 AM and I was back on a cross country flight that afternoon. All because the customer ignored an error message.
  • FTFY (Score:5, Funny)

    by jalefkowit ( 101585 ) <`jason' `at' `jasonlefkowitz.com'> on Monday March 01, 2010 @10:17AM (#31315410) Homepage

    Dear Slashdot,

    I am filled with a black, unutterable contempt for the troglodytic users of my application. Can you suggest ways to translate this contempt into software?

  • by 91degrees ( 207121 ) on Monday March 01, 2010 @10:17AM (#31315414) Journal
    It's not an error. Errors prevent you from continuing. The only thing approaching an error is the little box telling you there's a problem. That is solved by the user clicking "OK".

    The entire way errors are handled is wrong. I don't know what the solution is but I very much doubt it's a simple modification to the current fundamentally flawed system.
  • by snspdaarf ( 1314399 ) on Monday March 01, 2010 @10:17AM (#31315436)
    I have been wondering about this for 30 years. End users are not interested in learning how the computer software works, except for how it lets them do their job. On-screen messages, manuals, fax-back systems, wiki pages, they don't care. What they want is to pick up the phone, make a call, and have someone tell them what to do. At first, I thought it was them being lazy. However, I now think it is closer to why programmers don't like to be interrupted in the middle of a task. The user has a mental model built up of their task, and they don't want to risk losing it while they search for information on an error. Making a phone call, and having someone else walk them through the problem solving means they can maintain their task in "main memory". For them, it is more efficient.
  • by sunking2 ( 521698 ) on Monday March 01, 2010 @10:21AM (#31315476)
    Stop pushing the inadequacies of the program on the users. If you come across the error, then log it. Why are you relying on a person to sit there and read back to you something that could just as easily be written to a file that they could send to you or read directly.
  • A good plot (Score:5, Funny)

    by CodeHog ( 666724 ) <joe.slacker@[ ]il.com ['gma' in gap]> on Monday March 01, 2010 @10:22AM (#31315482) Homepage
    The error message has to have a good plot and some character development. Pull the users in with that and then get the error message across. Ok, seriously, as a writer of error messages at times, I have found putting in 'interesting' wording works sometimes with some of the more intelligent users. Unfortunately, there will always be the ones that just want someone else to do their work. I suggest that they be burned because they're witches.
  • by maillemaker ( 924053 ) on Monday March 01, 2010 @10:22AM (#31315488)

    Every day I have to fire up a Microsoft Access database program to clock in.

    Every day the first thing it does is pop up a dialog box that says something like, "Only run this if you trust it".

    I just hit OK.

    It's not my problem if it works right or not.

  • Guru Meditation (Score:5, Insightful)

    by mrybczyn ( 515205 ) on Monday March 01, 2010 @10:23AM (#31315504)

    Amiga had this right. Use a little humor with your messages, it may diffuse the anger and get some sympathy.

  • by spywhere ( 824072 ) on Monday March 01, 2010 @10:26AM (#31315552)
    I was the alpha geek on a Help Desk at a multi-state corporation, and the CIO had worked with me as an engineer before getting the job. When people too (self-)important to call the Help Desk had a problem, they would call him directly. He would give them to me, and I would make sure they were kept happy and their issues got resolved.

    One day, after a vice-president had SCREAMED at him because they couldn't log on, he asked me what I had done to fix it.
    I told him that their 'caps lock' had been on.
    He asked, "Doesn't the Windows error message remind users to check that?"

    I told him, "His lips got tired before he read down that far."
  • by Geoffrey.landis ( 926948 ) on Monday March 01, 2010 @10:28AM (#31315574) Homepage

    Number one answer would be to make error messages that are actually useful.

    Here's an error I got recently. It's a pretty common error in our SAP* system: "Error Code: -1 Error Desciption: Code: K/101. Error occurred in derivation rule. See long text." (Please note that there is no long text.)

    Here's another recent error message I encountered. Is this helpful?
    You have either entered an invalid Member ID, an invalid PIN, or your User Account is locked. Please validate that you are entering the correct member ID and PIN and try to log in again. "
    Translation: when you did the mandatory password change (required every 90 days), you entered a password that contained the } character. Although the rules say you must include symbol characters, we didn't mean that symbol character.

    And dozens of other equally useless ones.

    *"SAP" is not actually an acronym. It is the word used to describe the customers who have been persuaded to buy this software.

  • Distill them (Score:5, Interesting)

    by cgenman ( 325138 ) on Monday March 01, 2010 @10:31AM (#31315628) Homepage

    As a game designer, and sometime game UI designer, I feel your pain.

    The best way to get people to read your error messages is to have very few of them. People just tune them out. If you're tossing up error messages for things like synchronizing to network shares before the user really needs to, or connecting to 3rd party tools that the individual tool can handle the error for, cut those. They'll get to those errors later anyway, or the problem will be fixed by then. The only error messages should happen when it is impossible to do what the user asked.

    The ones that you do have should be 7 words or less, and should be both meaningful and in plain english (even for engineers). "Uninitialized Data" is technobabble, and "It Didn't Work" doesn't tell you anything. "Couldn't connect to the mail server" is much better, as it tells the user exactly what was wrong, but within a small enough space that by glancing at the textbox the user has already read it.

    Icons are most likely going to confuse your users unless they directly relate to the error at hand. "Warning: Trojan Detected [panda kicking a soccer ball]" might be cute, but if people are already confused they're going to have a hard time remembering even the soccer ball. The conflict of visual imagery just muddies the water. Throw a needle on the screen, and everybody will remember in a panic that the error had a needle up there, but not what the text said. If that snippet of information is not enough to work from, you'll need to find a different solution.

  • by unity100 ( 970058 ) on Monday March 01, 2010 @10:32AM (#31315646) Homepage Journal

    Funny error messages. really funny. not 'microsoft' funny.

  • by Gribflex ( 177733 ) on Monday March 01, 2010 @10:37AM (#31315726) Homepage

    I had a lengthy discussion with some of our field engineers, and a few of our customers, about a year ago about how they use the documentation to troubleshoot problems. My main goal was to see if there was something that we could do to get customers to read the docs more (and call support less).

    Eventually, someone cut to the heart of the issue from there side. Basically, he said "Do you know how much I pay each year for my support contract? No? Well, it's a lot. If I have any problems that don't fix themselves in under five minutes, I'm going to pick up the phone and call you. I'm paying you to support me if I have trouble, I shouldn't have to troubleshoot it myself."

  • by Erik Hensema ( 12898 ) on Monday March 01, 2010 @10:42AM (#31315806) Homepage

    "uninitialized data" is meaningless. It's something only a programmer would understand.

    Instead tell the user what *he* did wrong and tell him how to correct the situation.

    "No recipient address given. Please enter the the e-mail address of the recipient and try again".

  • by idontgno ( 624372 ) on Monday March 01, 2010 @10:45AM (#31315850) Journal
    LART [catb.org]
  • Use Humor (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Voyager529 ( 1363959 ) <voyager529 AT yahoo DOT com> on Monday March 01, 2010 @10:46AM (#31315876)

    Okay so this is technically a readme file, but it is still among the best technical documentation I've ever seen shipped with a piece of software. It came with the program "DV Rack", a video capture application written by Serious Magic...

    Oh, good.... You're reading this file. You are indeed a wise person who takes
    direction well. Blessings be upon you!


    All the captured video clips in this folder (and any subfolders in it) must
    remain unmodified and exactly where they are for DV Rack to fully and properly
    function. You see, DV Rack has an internal Database that puts the clips here
    and this Database bloody well expects them to still be here the next time it
    comes around looking for them. Pay attention because this Database has a
    personality much like the deity figure in some religions (say, Pan or Loki). It
    is a singularly temperamental, unforgiving, and capricious Database Deity. It
    knows how to Smite and, trust us, you don't want any smiting going on around
    your clips. The only way to make the Database Deity cranky is to mess with the
    clips it puts here in this one folder.

    Editing, deleting, or renaming these clips will result in inexplicable, random,
    and very likely BAD and NAUGHTY behavior on the part of DV Rack. No kidding,
    this normally elegant and refined software will start acting like a petulant
    three-year-old who is hours past nappy time and just had its ice cream taken
    away. No one wants that! So PLEASE do not perform any of these actions on any
    clips in this folder. However, if DV Rack is not running, you can use Windows
    to copy of one or more clips in this folder to somewhere else on your hard
    drive (outside the DV Rack folders). But don't even THINK about ever putting
    them back here.

    The instant, easy, proper (and painless) way to get your clutches on these
    clips is to first use the magic "Eject" button in the DVR. DV Rack will
    graciously take the clips from the evil clutches of the Database and put them
    next door, over in the "Ejected Clips" folder. Life is easy over there. No
    rules. No consequences. No three-year-olds.

    So remember, don't touch the clips unless they're in the "Ejected Clips" folder
    or the "Garbage Clips" folder. If you do, don't come crying to us like a three-
    year-old who just had its ice cream taken away. You have been warned...

    The DV Rack Team Thanks You For Your Most Benevolent Cooperation

    Unfortunately, Serious Magic was bought out by Adobe, who decided to write a more "corporate" version of this...and inflate the app size from 18MBytes to over 400.

  • not gonna happen (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Ephemeriis ( 315124 ) on Monday March 01, 2010 @10:48AM (#31315912)

    Users have been conditioned to simply click away message boxes as quickly as possible and get on with their lives.

    A Windows computer is constantly popping up boxes that get in your way. Sometimes it's just to inform you that a wireless network was found... Other times it's asking for confirmation for something... Other times it's a warning... Sometimes it's an error...

    Folks don't evaluate what the message says, they just make it go away.

    You can put all the puppies and red numbers and blue squares as you want... They're still going to click it away just as quick as they can.

    You could alleviate this to a certain degree by taking away their ability to clear the error message. Put in an error code somewhere, along with a phone number for technical support, and no way to close the box. They'll call you and you can have them read off whatever you need. Then you can tell them whatever bizarre combination of keys will actually close the box.

    A better solution would be to simply write a log of the error message when the box is generated, then you don't need to rely on the user to do much of anything.

  • Dr. Zen's answer (Score:4, Interesting)

    by hey! ( 33014 ) on Monday March 01, 2010 @10:57AM (#31316108) Homepage Journal

    Q: How do you get users to read error messages?

    A: How do you write error messages that are worth reading?

    Commentary: Users do not read error messages because they are mystified by them. To mystify them willfully only increases their resistance.

    The first job is to create error messages that actually help the user. Users are conditioned by the generally crappy state of error messages to ignore them. If you provide helpful error messages then the users that *can* be helped can be trained to read them. It's operant conditioning -- like giving a rat a food pellet for successfully navigating a maze.

    The very first thing you should do with error messages is pull them all together into some kind of document. This document should have (1) an unambiguous ID for the error; (2) a description of *what* happened ; (2) a description or at least a guess for *why* it happened; (3a) the impact of the error on the user (3b) how the user can recover from the error; (3c) what the programmer can do to avoid this; (4) what the user needs to do in the future.

    Note that 3b also implies that *you* should consider how the program is apt to behave after the error message is displayed so you can offer the user sensible choices. For example, if the program fails to write the application preferences file on exiting, it makes sense to give the user both retry and cancel options, rather than sending him into a pointless loop that requires him to shoot the process down.

    Then you write an error message that tells the user roughly what happened, what the impact on him may be, what he needs to do to get out of the corner he's painted himself into, and what he can do in the future. This should always include an unique message identifier for your use.


    Please note this error number: #1234. You will need it if you contact technical support.

    The program was unable to update the application preferences file. That is the file that stores the settings you have chosen for things like preferred document styles and last document viewed (choose "More Information" for details).

    File updates can fail when the security permissions on the preferences file or directory ave been set to prevent changes; when more than one program is editing the preferences file at the same time; or when the computer's file system is damaged.

    You can check for these kinds of problems (chose "More help" for instructions) then choose "Retry" to see if the problem is solved. If you choose "Ignore Error" the program will continue without saving any preference changes. If this error persists it is recommended that you check the security settings, permissions and integrity of your filesystem.

    [More information] [Retry] [Ignore Error]

    Now if this sounds like a pain in the ass, it *is*. But it's a much better approach than trying to trick users into reading a piece-of-shit error message like "File operation failed" for a condition like that described.

  • Icon selection (Score:3, Interesting)

    by vlm ( 69642 ) on Monday March 01, 2010 @10:59AM (#31316156)

    For example, I was thinking about creating icons or logos to identify specific errors.

    Choice 1) I assume you have a company directory with pictures of personnel. Use them. "I got a Patty Sue error...". I have, in fact, done this. It is best to use well known personnel (the receptionist, the director, etc)

    Choice 2) I assume, being a slashdotter, you have a vast collection of Pr0n. Use them. "I got a Goatse error...". I threatened to do this, but never actually did it.

    Choice 3) Combine #1 and #2. This is by far the funniest if you make pictures that "us slashdotters" would recognize but the general public would be completely unaware of. "Well, I got an error message, it has those two women from accounting, and a cup..." "So, the error message has a bunch of lemons at a birthday party" "After it stopped working, I see a goat on the left side and the Mediterranean Sea on the right side"

    Much more boring, yet almost as illegal, is to violate copyright laws and include cartoons. Oh, you say you got a dilbert error? A family circus error, that'll take awhile to fix.

  • Full Screen Stop (Score:3, Insightful)

    by mbone ( 558574 ) on Monday March 01, 2010 @11:17AM (#31316460)

    I have had similar problems, and have found that

    - a full screen fatal error message and

    - a stop of all activity

    is necessary to get most people to pay attention to an error message. Otherwise, people will ignore even the most dire warnings.

  • by gestalt_n_pepper ( 991155 ) on Monday March 01, 2010 @12:18PM (#31317440)

    Imagine this scenario in a restaurant:

    Your steak is burned on one side, but cold. There's a big pile of a yellow granular unidentified substance piled on top of it. Your waiter comes along and says, "Cook's oven not functioning correctly and unknown substance spilled on top." OK?

    In short, most error messages are crap. The blame lies with LAZY system designers and LAZY developers.

    I can't tell you how many times, I see error messages like "Default zone not selected.: OK?" or "Type error on search processing object 23: OK?" Every time I see this crap, I want to bitch slap some lazy son of a bitch and ban all dialogs that only have the "OK" button as a response.

    The CORRECT response to the first example above is something like. "Sorry, you need to select a default zone first. Shall I bring up the dialog that allows you do to this?: "Yes", "No", "Cancel"
    The CORRECT response to the second example above is to fire the lazy system designer and/or programmer who couldn't be bothered to come up with an intelligent useful response to an error and because of their laziness, wasted thousands of hours of user time, just so they could take an early lunch.

Things equal to nothing else are equal to each other.