AODC – error messages

This week I attended the Australasian Online Documentation and Content Conference (AODC) on the Gold Coast in Queensland, Australia. The last session was entitled “The World’s Word Error Messages, or How to Scare End Users” presented by Frank “Choco” Munday.

Choco is a prolific and experienced technical writer, author and adventurer, and a member of the Australian Federal Police. He has collected a very amusing set of real-life error messages to illustrate and enliven the sound principles behind his talk — how to review and write good error messages.

The serious stuff

Software developers have to write text that is more important than any other text in the application or documentation: the labels etc on the UI and the error messages. It’s up to us, as technical writers, to review their work. Choco has “trained” his developers to consult him whenever they need to write something.

A good error message:

  • Is polite and doesn’t blame the user.
  • Clearly describes what’s wrong.
  • Gives advice on how to fix it.
  • Is in a human-readable language.
  • Gives an indication of the severity of the problem.
  • Does not include hostile words like “abort”, “kill”, “invalid”, “illegal”.
  • Is targeted towards the user not the developer.

Some less-than-ideal error messages

All of these error messages are real i.e. they do or did appear in an operating system or application:

  • “When casting from a number, the value must be a number less than infinity.”
  • “Error: The operation completed successfully.”
  • “Your mouse has moved. Windows must be restarted for the change to take effect.” This one is from the early days of the USB mouse in Windows 98 and now appears on t-shirts.
  • “Value Error: insecure string pickle.” This comes from PaintShop Pro and has something to do with pickles in Python, the language used to create PaintShop Pro.
  • “Please kill your PC!” From Nero.
  • “Stop that!” From IE beta in early days of XML parser.
  • “Press any key to continue or any other key to quit.” From Microsoft Exchange.
  • “The command has been aborted. An internal error occured in Pro/DESKTOP. It is most likely that doing the same thing again will produce the same error.”

And lots more.

My conclusions

Choco, we are forever in your debt. This session was just perfect to for a Friday afternoon. Choco had us wiping away tears of laughter while getting the message (get it 😀 ) at the same time.


About Sarah Maddox

Technical writer, author and blogger in Sydney

Posted on 18 May 2008, in AODC, technical writing and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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