Re: Terms not to use in Error Messages

Subject: Re: Terms not to use in Error Messages
From: Dick Margulis <margulis -at- fiam -dot- net>
To: "TECHWR-L" <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- raycomm -dot- com>
Date: Sun, 27 Jul 2003 06:29:29 -0400

Seema wrote:

I am looking for a comprehensive list of terms that should not be used in
error messages. If any of you have stumbled on such a list on the
Internet, I request you to share the resource location.

For example, it is recommended not use the word 'illegal', the term
'invalid' must be used instead.



"It is recommended" is a fine example of a passive voice construction we would like to avoid. It's meaning is clearly the same as "they say"; that is, we do not know who is doing the recommending, so we are chary of the recommendation.

The word _illegal_ in error messages usually occurs in "the application has performed an illegal operation." I can tell you that my dad encounters this a lot, and he calls me in a panic, wondering what he has done wrong and whether the computer police are going to knock on his door (he's just old and easily confused, not stupid). I don't know whether substituting the word _invalid_ for _illegal_ solves the problem. My dad might not be worried about the police, but he still would be no further toward understanding what happened or what action he should take next.

I think a more useful message would be one that focuses on the user's needs rather than on the developer's diagnostics, and I believe Windows XP has finally replaced the "illegal operation" language with something friendlier. However, assuming that you are writing error messages for a user interface rather than for an operating system, let's switch to a homelier example.

For example, if you present a form to the user that requires valid entries in fields, the user is going to react better to, "Please enter a valid email address," than to, "You entered an invalid email address."

See where I'm going with this? It isn't a list of words that should drive your message writing but rather a user-centered attitude. The right words will present themselves as you need them.


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Terms not to use in Error Messages: From: Seema

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