How to Write an Effective Error Message

An effective error message can alleviate a bad user experience with simple, easy-to-follow directions. Follow these tips to turn a bad user experience into a positive one. 

Written by Saadia Minhas
Published on Apr. 11, 2024
How to Write an Effective Error Message
Image: Shutterstock / Built In
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Mistakes happen. When people use a product, they’re bound to get stuck somewhere in response to their actions. 

Those situations can be frustrating for users if they aren’t handled properly within the product. It depends on the experience that the product is providing to its users. That’s where error messages come in. 

Error Message Tips to Know

  1. Be clear.
  2. Be short and meaningful.
  3. Don’t use technical jargon.
  4. Don’t blame the user.
  5. Avoid negative words.
  6. Give directions to the user.
  7. Be specific and relevant.
  8. Avoid uppercase text.
  9. Provide appropriate actions.
  10. Use the progressive disclosure approach.
  11. Use proper placement. 

An effective error message needs to communicate to the user the nature of the problem in simple words along with a solution to rectify it. Include too much information or too little, and you’ll end up frustrating the user and potentially losing them. 

Below are a few tips to strike the right balance and create an effective error message.

 

11 Error Message Tips to Know

 

1. Be Clear

Write error messages in clear and simple language. The user should be able to understand the problem while reading an error message.

If the error message is ambiguous, and the user is not able to find the reason for the message, then it’s pointless. Users can’t do anything to fix the problem, and it badly impacts the experience of the product.

A good and bad login failed error message.
An error message should be clear and not ambiguous. | Image: Saadia Minhas

 

Examples

Windows error message does not give any clue about the problem and solution.
Windows error message does not give any clue about the problem and solution. | Screenshot: Saadia Minhas
Autodesk displays an ambiguous error message that contains no useful information
Autodesk displays an ambiguous error message that contains no useful information. | Screenshot: Saadia Minhas

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2. Be Short And Meaningful

An error message should only contain necessary information. Most of the time, the user isn’t willing to read a long story.

Be concise and write a short description that is meaningful for the user and gives him a clear idea of the problem and how to resolve it.

Avoid using redundant words and don’t over-communicate the problem.

Examples of a short error message and long one.
Short and meaningful error messages are more understandable. | Image: Saadia Minhas

 

Examples

Dex error message not meaningful to the user.
The message is not meaningful for user. | Screenshot: Saadia Minhas
Error message that's too short
A message should not be as short as missing the useful details. | Screenshot: Saadia Minhas

 

3. Don’t Use Technical Jargon

Most users aren’t interested in the technical details behind the problem. If a message contains technical terms or jargon, it will only confuse the user.

Try to use simple and plain language without referring to implementation details.

If it’s important to mention technical and complex details, then place them in a troubleshooting section and direct the user so that he can resolve the issue quickly.

Technical details in two different error messages
Technical details make an error message more complex. | Image: Saadia Minhas

 

Examples

An example of a technical error message
An example of a technical error message. | Screenshot: Saadia Minhas
The error message contains technical information
The error message contains technical information. | Screenshot: Saadia Minhas

 

4. Don’t Blame the User

A good error message is humble. It conveys the issues gracefully to its user without blaming him for his actions.

Users can perform an incorrect action again and again. But it’s the responsibility of design to inform them about mistakes in a good way.

Example of error message that blames user and doesn't blame user.
The user does not feel good while reading an insulting message. | Image: Saadia Minhas

 

Examples

Example of an insulting error message
An example of an insulting message. | Screenshot: Saadia Minhas
Another insulting error message.
Another message that is harsh for the user. | Screenshot: Saadia Minhas

 

5. Avoid Negative Words

There are certain negative words that should be avoided. Since error messages are based on some unusual user actions, there’s a chance that the message could feel disrespectful to the user.

Avoid negative words
Avoid negative words if the user makes a mistake. | Image: Saadia Minhas

 

Examples

Error message that's unclear and unkind.
This message is neither clear nor uses positive words. | Screenshot: Saadia Minhas

 

6. Give Direction to User

A good error message has three parts: problem identification, details about the cause for the error (if helpful) and a solution (if possible).

Whenever an error occurs, the user wants to fix it as soon as possible. The error message should have enough information to guide users on how to fix the situation.

The message can also direct the user to some other place or person from where he can get detailed help about the problem.

A message should display complete information
A message should display complete information. | Image: Saadia Minhas

 

Examples

The cause and solution is missing in this error message.
In this message, the cause of error and guidance for solution is missing. | Screenshot: Saadia Minhas

 

7. Be Specific And Relevant

The message should contain relevant information so that users can relate to specified locations and options easily.

Point out the exact location of the problem,  where users should go and what steps they need to follow to resolve it.

If an error message contains vague information, the user will get confused, and it becomes difficult for him to remove the error.

A message should contain useful information
A message should contain useful information. | Screenshot: Saadia Minhas

 

Examples

Three possible errors in this message
Three possible causes of error are given in this message that can be confusing for the user. | Screenshot: Saadia Minhas
A message guiding the user in a precise way
A message guiding the user in a precise way. | Screenshot: Saadia Minhas

 

8. Avoid Uppercase Text

Text in all caps is difficult to read, and it can feel like you’re shouting at the user.

The error message is a place where the user is informed about a critical scenario, so using upper-case text can feel discouraging.

 

Example

All caps and lower case error message examples.
A message guiding the user in a precise way. | Image: Saadia Minhas

 

9. Provide Appropriate Actions

Actions are an important part of the error message. Appropriate actions provide guidance to users about the next step.

Actions are possible routes to solve the problem. A message can contain one or more actions for the user. If the user has to perform specific actions to remove the error, then use the same action name as the button title.

Appropriate actions are important part of an error message
Appropriate actions are important part of an error message. | Image: Saadia Minhas

 

Examples

Clear and precise error message.
Clear and precise actions given in this error message. | Screenshot: Saadia Minhas

 

10. Use the Progressive Disclosure Approach

If there is detailed information related to a message that the user may not want to see, then place it in a show/hide section. It can be useful for an advanced user that may want to know about technical details.

Just make sure to place the least important information in these sections, as most of the time, users won’t go to the show/hide section.

The progressive disclosure approach is good for hiding additional details
The progressive disclosure approach is good for hiding additional details. | Image: Saadia Minhas

 

Examples

User may not be interested in knowing the details at first glance
User may not be interested in knowing the details at first glance. | Screenshot: Saadia Minhas
A tutorial on how to write effective error messages. | Video: NNgroup

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11. Use Proper Placement

It’s very important to place an error message closer to the area where the error occurred. Users shouldn’t have to hunt for the mistake after reading the message.

For example, when the user is filling in information in a form, it’s best to provide validation error along with the controls it relates to.

Otherwise, the user will first find the erroneous control and then resolve it.

An error message should be visible and noticeable. A message appearing on a screen should be responsive, following the user even as they scroll.

Proper error message placement.
It is a good experience to provide error details along with the control. | Image: Saadia Minhas

It’s best to avoid errors completely, but since we live in a world of humans, that’s not possible.

However, by following standard rules and guidelines, any errors can be handled in a helping way instead of scolding the user for his mistakes.

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