Whither book "Developing Windows Error Messages"

Subject: Whither book "Developing Windows Error Messages"
From: Chuck Martin <cwmartin -at- US -dot- ORACLE -dot- COM>
Date: Tue, 22 Dec 1998 13:45:17 -0800

Fellow TECHWR-Lers,

I just ran across this book ("Developing Windows Error Messages,"
O'Reilly, ISBN 1565923561) and my jaw simply dropped in amazement. And
not because I was pleased to see it. Amazon.com provides this as a book

"This book teaches C++ and Visual Basic programmers how to write
effective error messages that notify the user of an error, clearly
explain the error, and, most importantly, offer a solution to the error.
The enclosed disk contains software that presents all error messages in
a standard format as well as responses for different levels of errors."

I have several issues with this, without even reading the book--and I'm
not sure I even want to now.

First, it's claimed target audience is programmers. Why, oh why, do the
authors and publishers want to perpetuate the myth that programmers
should be the ones to write error messages? While it would be nice for
programmers to learn to communicate effectively with a non-technical
audience, isn't that what we, as technical communicators, are trained to

Second (and this is a more root issue), I'm a firm believer that error
messages are bad. Bad, bad, bad. My classic example of this is on page
428 of the book "About Face: The Essentials of User Interface Design"
(by Alan Cooper, ISBN 1568843224). The illustration is of an error
message that describes what error messages feel like to users. The text
reads "It's obvious from your actions that you don't know jack squat
about computers or software," and the 3 button labels read "I am not
worthy," "Please kill me now," and "I should go back to pencil and
paper." I agree with Cooper when he says that good software design will
alleviate the need for nearly every possible error message. The
existence of this new book gives an implied green light for programmers
to continue to design bad software as long as the error messages are

I have been in situations (unfortunately, not my current one) where I
have been actively involved in the design of the software interface, and
one of my goals was not only to make the interface understandable, but
to advocate design that would avoid error messages by not allowing the
users to take actions that would result in errors.

While I can see that the intentions of this book are good, I think it's
ultimately a step backwards, both in terms of advancing software design
principles and of technical communicators having a voice and a role in
the software development process.

Chuck Martin
Principal Technical Writer, Oracle Developer
Tools Division, Oracle Corporation


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