Oops, I ruined your life :)

Feedback messages have come a long way since the time of Abort – Retry – Fail. For those of you too young to remember a world without graphical interfaces, those are DOS messages. Today’s feedback messages are rather more creative and playful, to the point where people have started making  “best of” collections. There’s even one error message, the “Fail Whale”  from Twitter – an illustration of a whale lifted up by birds displayed when Twitter is brought down by too many Tweets – that safely qualifies as a viral cult object. Even Microsoft’s infamous “blue screen of death” has undergone a dramatic facelift with Windows 8.

The current trend among writers of error messages is to be cute, with expressions like “oops” and “uh oh” cropping up in some of the most frequently used applications.

Here’s Gmail:

 And here’s Facebook:

I tend to think it’s a good idea to become more personal when interacting with the user, but when I’ve just lost all my work, a “cute” message feels glib and patronizing, not funny. In those circumstances, what I really want to know is why it happened and what I can do about it.

While finding the right tone of voice is one important aspect of crafting meaningful messages, there are actually a number of additional elements to consider. Based on my experience, I have come up with 5 guidelines to follow when defining the interaction between the application and its user(let me know if you feel there’s something missing!):

  1. Give feedback on user action and updates on system status
  2. Prevent errors from happening
  3. Allow for easy error recovery
  4. Communicate clearly and consistenty
  5. Provide access to more information / help when needed

I will review these points in more detail in another post. In the meantime, here’s a presentation on the same topic:


The truth is that feedback messages – alert, error, help, etc. – are often treated as an afterthought (oops!), when in fact they should be an integral part of the user-centric application design process.

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About the author

Julia Borkenhagen
Julia Borkenhagen

Julia is a certified usability analyst by HFI (Human Factors International) with over 15 years of experience in user research, interface design, usability testing and project management.
Prior to joining blue-infinity, Julia worked several years for the San Francisco based agency Digitas on the dell.com account and as the lead web producer for NIKU, now CA Technologies.
Julia has been with blue-infinity since 2005 and is leading our in-house User Experience practice.