In my previous article, I touched on the idea that users of web applications perceive error messages as direct communication from the developer or proprietors of the site in use, and that these messages are an extension of an ongoing brand conversation that exists. I also briefly mentioned the need to use tact when conversing with the opposite sex.

To continue on with this idea of relationships, conversation, and error messages, I want to draw a similarity between using tact in "real life" conversations, and how it can be used effectively in virtual conversations with customers through better error messages.

What is tact and how does it relate to web application design?

At it's essence, using tact is a form of manipulation; it's kind manipulation, but manipulation all the same. Communicating tactfully is the art of saying something with the intention of motivating somebody to respond in a certain way, or perform a certain task.

The dictionary defines tact in this way:

  • NOUN
    1. A keen sense of what to say or do to avoid giving offense; Skill in dealing with difficult or delicate situations.

The military uses tactics (a closely related word), to accomplish it's missions.

You can probably see where I'm going with this. Since an error message is a communication with the intention of convincing someone to perform an action, it makes sense that error messages should be written with tact.

Do you want your users to use your software in the way it's intended to work? Communicate tactfully.

How to write Tactful Error Messages

Now, I'll be honest, I'm not an expert on tact or etiquette, and I'm no Jakob Nielsen. I'm just sharing what makes sense to me, it might not make sense to you. In my opinion, a tactful error message should include these 3 key steps:

  • Communicate the problem
  • Communicate how to fix it
  • Communicate why to fix it, give incentive

Password Example

A poor example:

Invalid username or password.

A tactful error message:

The username or password you provided didn't match our records. Please double check and try again to log in to your account.

404 Example

A poor example:

File Not Found - 404 - File or page doesn't exist.

A tactful error message:

The file or page you've requested is no longer there. You may have followed a broken or outdated link. Try entering the page name in the search field below and we'll do our best to show you where it's been moved to.

Password Length Example

A poor example:

Password must be at least 8 characters.

A tactful error message:

The password you entered is not very secure. Please enter a password containing at least 8 numbers and letters together, to ensure that your personal information is safe.

Communicate The Problem

Try telling the user what's wrong without using any technical jargon. It takes a few more words, but it will give your visitors more comfort if they understand why they received an error in the first place. Words like invalid, fail, error & exception create negativity. It's important to communicate what happened in a non-accusatory, positive, descriptive manner.

Communicate How to Fix It

It's amazing how many error messages I come across that say what's wrong (in the bluntest way possible) but give no indication how to fix it, just a red arrow or text near a field on a form. Give a detailed description of how to correct the problem.

Communicate Why To Fix It, Give Incentive

This is the piece that is most often left out, but contains the most tact. Why do we require certain information from users of our applications? How does it benefit them to jump through the hoops we set in place? It's important to communicate why.

If you require them to have a password with both numbers and letters, tell them it's because it will make it more difficult for hackers to get their personal information. If you need them to re-enter their username or password on log in, tell them it's because what they entered didn't match your records and that they'll be able to log in if they correct it.

Moving Forward

This is really just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to talking about extending brand conversations through communications in web applications, but it should spark some thought the next time you're writing error messages. Do you agree with me? Do you disagree? Add a comment and keep the conversation going.