Error? It Wasn't My Fault!

  |  August 26, 2005   |  Comments

Error messages say a lot about your company and how you view your customers.

Your company's online brand is more than just the colors and graphics you choose to use. It's represented in your language, the way users are allowed to navigate through your site, and the level of intuition present in your site's features. In essence, brand is in the interactive details of your site. Additionally, a poorly thought out brand leads to a boring, generic Web site. Today, we'll look at a pet peeve of mine: error messages. Error messages say a lot about your company and how you view your customers.

The Customer Is Always Right?

Somewhere in the transition from offline to on-, we lost the mantra, "The customer is always right." Online, most Web sites treat users as if they're always wrong. At least, the error messages on Web sites make it seem so.

Until a few weeks ago, Friendster had this message in red when you arrived on its home page: "Error: You've been logged off due to inactivity." How rude. I didn't make a mistake on the site. It's not an error. I can't be expected to use the site continuously without a moment of "inactivity."

I'm not sure if Friendster received email about this "error" message or it just realized how horrible it was. Recently, it changed the message to read: "Sorry! We thought you left, so we closed your Friendster session for your security/privacy. Please log in again!" Much better. It places the fault on the site, not on me. It's probably still a little wordy. Just saying "Please log in" without any explanation would be fine. Sites such as Yahoo ask you to log in, then provide a link for people who want an explanation as to why they have to log in again.

Checkout Errors

There are so many required fields in a checkout process, error checking is crucial. Checkout can be frustrating for this reason (a lot of data input for people who may not type very well). Error messages on these pages must be well crafted to put people at ease, not frustrate them even more.

I entered an incorrect Zip Code on Amazon the other day. Amazon's error-checking technology caught the error and suggested the correct address. Again, this technology can come off as annoying or helpful. If it's presented as "Error: you entered an incorrect address. Please select from one of these addresses," it would frustrate me. This version is better: "We can't find that address in our database. Could one of these be the correct address?" That makes me think the site is on my side and trying to help me. It isn't trying to point out my flaws.

All Interactive Media Can Benefit

Interactive marketing doesn't only occur online. A friendly tone goes a long way over other interactive media as well. I was on hold with Verizon the other day, using its automated help line. I found it warm and friendly when the automated woman said, "Hold on, I am looking for your records. OK, I have it in front of me now." Of course, there isn't a physical file in front of her. She doesn't even exist. But a little visual metaphor like that helps break down the wall between the robot and me. I felt as if I were having a conversation with a person. Had the voice said, "Please wait as I retrieve your data," it would have been uncomfortable.

Be Helpful, and Stop the Finger-Pointing

Is there really any such thing as an error message?

Error messages come in two basic flavors. One indicates the user did something the program wasn't expecting. The other identifies an actual system error (e.g., a down server). Either way, we must stop blaming users for being "wrong." Instead, we should try to anticipate errors and find softer ways to get around them. These aren't errors on the user's part.

Thinking like this makes a brand much more pleasant and positive. Your brand shouldn't degrade users or berate them, right? In a store, you'd fire a salesperson who looked snidely at a customer and said, "That's not a valid Zip Code. You're wrong."

Until next time...


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Jack Aaronson

Jack Aaronson, CEO of The Aaronson Group and corporate lecturer, is a sought-after expert on enhanced user experiences, customer conversion, retention, and loyalty. If only a small percentage of people who arrive at your home page transact with your company (and even fewer return to transact again), Jack and his company can help. He also publishes a newsletter about multichannel marketing, personalization, user experience, and other related issues. He has keynoted most major marketing conferences around the world and regularly speaks at and other major industry shows. You can learn more about Jack through his LinkedIn profile.

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