Automated error messages with "personality"

Subject: Automated error messages with "personality"
From: Yvonne DeGraw <yvonne -at- SILCOM -dot- COM>
Date: Fri, 21 May 1999 11:26:15 -0700

Has anyone seen or done recent research on what typical users think
about error messages that attempt to have "personality"? I recall
some research by Sam Dragga (he was my tech comm prof in college)
that said users didn't like the computer pretending to be someone
it wasn't. But, that research was pre-Internet boom.

A client of mine has autoresponder email messages like this
(company name replaced with ***):

>Hello, this is the ***SendMaster from ***.com. I thought
>that I would send you an email message letting you know
>that the *** message that you attempted did not
>successfully reach the intended recipient.
>Here is what I think the problem might be:
>The email address yvonne -at- silcom -dot- com is not in our records.

This makes me think of 2001. ("I'm sorry Dave. I'm afraid
I can't do that.") My intuition is that users would prefer
that the computer sound more certain about what the problem
is and give ways to verify or fix the problem.

I don't think it's a huge problem for the message to identify
itself as coming from the ***SendMaster. However, people can't
reply to this as if it were a person. My biggest problem is
with all the weasel words in "I thought that I would send you
an email message letting you know ..."

I'd like to cite some research to back me up if it's available.
Supporting or diverging opinions are also welcome.

Intended audience is general public using computers, particularly
home-office and mobile-office workers. At this time, most will
probably be early adopters of new technologies.

Yvonne DeGraw, Technical Services o Technical Writing
yvonne -at- silcom -dot- com o Online Help o Web Documentation
Tel: 805/683-5784 o Database Publishing

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