Error messages with attitude?

Subject: Error messages with attitude?
From: Geoff Hart <Geoff-h -at- MTL -dot- FERIC -dot- CA>
Date: Tue, 25 May 1999 08:22:07 -0400

Yvonne DeGraw wondered <<Has anyone seen or done
recent research on what typical users think about error
messages that attempt to have "personality"? I recall...
that users didn't like the computer pretending to be someone
it wasn't.>>

Repeat after me: "It depends on your audience!" <g> For
example, I seriously doubt that the audience who came up
with the term "daemon" for a background process (i.e., UNIX
programmers) would have the same response as a bunch of
terrified first-time computer users to personification of
software. Personally, I find it hard to imagine a situation
outside the context of computer games in which people
would seek or be comforted by humor or informality in an
error message; even then, if you're 5 points from a personal
best on a game and it crashes, a casual error message is
likely to lead to thoughts of cybercide. Worse yet, I can't
imagine a single type of "casual" or "joke" that will amuse
and reassure all audiences, given the stressful context of an
error and how personal humor is.

<<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 think your second point contains the solution. Present the
error message reassuringly (the first point) so that nobody
panics, then present enough information about the problem to
help the user understand its seriousness and what to do about
it. Nothing more is necessary or particularly helpful.

<<... 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 ...">>

And that's the specific problem: those who know the
computer isn't a person will feel patronized, and those who
don't may be misled into assuming the computer or the
programmers give a damn about their problem. The computer
doesn't, and even if the programmers do, they're not there to
help out; when that becomes apparent (e.g., when the online
help isn't helpful or there's no way to recover from the error),
frustration and fear easily become anger.

<<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

How about turning the problem on its head: What is the
specific benefit of adding personified or amusing or casual
help _in your specific context and for your specific
audience_, and what are the drawbacks? (For that matter,
how can you define "humorous" or "casual" objectively?)
Irrespective of what the research says on the matter, the
cost/benefit analysis for your own audience is more likely to
prove productive. And if you can back that up with a
usability test, then Bob's your uncle.

--Geoff Hart @8^{)} Pointe-Claire, Quebec
geoff-h -at- mtl -dot- feric -dot- ca

"If pro is opposite of con, then what is the opposite of progress?"--Anon. (possibly Richard Lederer

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