writing error messages for software application

Subject: writing error messages for software application
From: "Mason, Catheryn" <CMason -at- INFINITEC-COM -dot- com>
To: TECHWR-L <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- raycomm -dot- com>
Date: Tue, 29 Feb 2000 17:06:30 -0600

Hello fellow whirlers:
I'd like to gather advice on writing error messages that are concise,
helpful, and not intimidating to the user. I'm designing a Windows GUI for
our software and I'm finding that writing good error messages is the hardest
part of the project (for me, anyway). Anybody have any success stories or
tips to share? Anything, as a user of software applications, that you either
really like or hate to see in an error message?

I seem to veer between two extremes -- one is a "just the facts, ma'am"
minimalist approach (as in "System date and time could not be reset"), the
other is loading the user down with way too much feedback and including
information in the error message that might belong appropriately in a pop-up
box or a help file (as in "System date and time could not be reset. Ensure
that x and x and x conditions are met"). I want to be helpful but not

I've read through the guidelines about writing message box text in
Microsoft's official guidelines for UI designers, but I'm looking for
additional input.

All ideas appreciated -- thanks.

Catheryn Mason, Technical Writer
Infinitec Communications
cmason -at- infinitec-com -dot- com
Winner, 1999 IABC Bronze Quill Award of Excellence for Technical Writing

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