Monday, May 23, 2011

Design Sense : Making Sense of Error Messages

No matter, how well we design our Software Systems, exceptions are bound to happen. Some times, due to our internal faults arising from bad or incomplete design like not handling errors or certain uncommon conditions. And some times, due to events that are totally out of our control. What makes our application exceptional is how we handle those exceptions and keep the conversations going. 

Here is an example of an Error Message on Microsoft Xbox that needs serious re-work from Microsoft.  If you are wondering it must be a mistake as it doesn’t even look like an error message allow me to explain.


Customers need XBOX Live Gold level subscription to access Netflix.  I did have a Gold Subscription and I have been happily watching movies streamed from Netflix for a long time. Now and then, XBOX stops the movie and comes to this particular screen after a couple of beeps asking me to “Upgrade to Gold or Sign in”  doesn’t make any sense at all.

After a couple of instances, I figured out that this screen pops up when connection to the internet is lost or down. I confirmed it by shutting down my wireless router a couple of times.

Error messages, particularly those that are displayed to end customers, must be sensible, contextual and make sense. If possible, prompt users to take alternate actions that may provide a temporary work around.  In this particular case, if internet connection is lost, it should just say that it can’t connect to internet rather than I don’t have the right subscription.  Can also make suggestions to end users on how they can make sure access to Internet is working properly.  If internet connectivity is just fine but Netflix servers are down (like it happened last month), it can nicely share the same that it can not contact Netflix servers, but connectivity is just fine. 

Take a look at how you are handling exceptions like this and review whether those error messages are making sense, keeping your customers informed and most importantly keep the conversations going

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