Error messages: Does anyone really care?

Recently one of the engineering managers at work mentioned a bizarre error message he’d read about: “Shut ‘er down, Clancy, she’s pumping mud!” Thanks to Google, I quickly verified that it was a real message, from the Texas Instruments 990 minicomputer, indicating a condition that the programmer never expected would happen but eventually did. (Isn’t that always the way?) My research led me to this 2008 article on the 13 worst error messages of all time. (I’m a sucker for any clickbait headline with a number in it.)

The article was interesting enough, but so were the comments. We talk about the audience’s state of mind when receiving an error message, and I’m well aware of the dictum never to be humorous, because a user who encounters the message may be stressed. As a user, that’s sure true for me, and I personally don’t appreciate error-message humor. But are stories about user stress anecdotal? Do users in general react emotionally to error messages? Judging from over 500 comments, a lot of people really do! I realize this is just more anecdotal evidence, but consider this sampling:

  • “When I was 5, I did something to my parents brand new ($5000) Macintosh and got sad mac. I thought I’d destroyed the machine and hid under my bed. All they did was eject the floppy I’d left in and kept on going.”
  • “How about Windows 3.1: ‘TERMINAL APPLICATION ERROR’ and an OK button. The ‘OK’ button was the insulting part. You just lost your work, OK.”
  • “The error that continues to frost my cupcakes keeps occurring on the Clarify web application that I use to search for internal Change Requests. Everytime I see this, I want to smack the developers: ‘Errors have occurred. We won’t tell you where or why. Lazy programmers. – Charlie Gibbs’”
  • “What about ‘This program has performed an illegal operation and will be shut down’? When I was a kid I was afraid I had done something wrong and that the cops would be showing up.”
  • “I always liked ‘This computer has performed an illegal operation and will be shut down.’ My aunt actually thought someone was going to call the authorities…”
  • “I came back to my office one day with my assistant crying and hysterical. The OS 7.?.? Mac had crashed on her, and instead of the bomb (which would have been bad enough), it played the sound of a car skidding to a stop before crashing. Horrible sound. Traumatizing sound. About as far as you can get from the happy smiling Mac and comparatively nonthreatening cartoon bomb. So, the Mac car-crash sound gets my vote for scaring the hell out of the people who hear it.”
  • “[M]y grandmother thought that “illegal operation. divide by 0″ was going to bring the cops to her house…”
  • “General Protection Fault is my favorite from Windows 3.1. As a telephone tech support agent back in the mid 90′s I actually had a customer call and ask for the rank and serial number of this so-called general. I swear to you, the person was serious. Priceless.”
  • “The one I voted for – although I can’t say it’s my ‘favourite’ – had to be Abort, Retry, Ignore. I remember screaming in pain many times when encountering that one.”
  • “The error messages I hate the most are the ones that say something like ‘A serious error has occurred. Please see your system administrator.’ I am the freeking [sic] sysadmin and I don’t know what just went wrong!”
  • “My favorite error message came from ‘ed’, the original Unix line editor back in the late 70′s. I’d spend 15 minutes concocting the regular expression command I wanted ‘ed’ to execute (e.g., ‘/abc/s/x$1bcd$2yz/yz$1xz$2/g’) and type it in. Ed responds with a simple, elegant error message: ? (a single question mark) I check the UNIX man page for ‘ed’ and fine the following, under ‘ERRORS’: ‘?: Error in command. The experienced user will know what to do’ (Insert sound of head banging against wall.) The error messages were actually quite informative, but it did make you feel like a complete dolt to get one!”
  • “Most flabbergasting: the ever-so-helpful “An error has occurred.” (Or simply “Error!”) No details on what the error was, where it occurred, how to diagnose it, or what to do about it. Just remembering it makes my blood boil.”

“Crying and hysterical”? “Screaming in pain”? “Makes my blood boil”? We didn’t know you cared so much! It sounds like when we get the opportunity to shape error messages, we should be extra careful—and skip the jokes.

Published by Steven Jong

I am a lifelong technical communicator, a Fellow of the Society for Technical Communication (STC), a former STC board member, and chair of the first STC Certification Commission. I occasionally blog about these and other topics.

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