It’s been a while since I last wrote about error messages. But it is still a subject dear to my heart. I still find error messages one the most important part of an application to get right. And I still spend quite a lot of time considering how best to word something to give the user a fighting chance of fixing the problem themselves.

I was testing some work done by one of my developers last week. It is part of a back-end application collecting data from various sources and pulling it together into one complete record. It then does some validation to make sure we have everything we need before moving on. The only time it tells our user anything is if the complete record isn’t as complete as we need it to be.

So a set of my tests were about checking the validation. What happens if one of the data sources isn’t there? What happens if a piece of data is missing? That kind of thing. So I removed a piece of information and ran the application. It told me that a

“It is likely that <piece of information> is absent”.

So it functionally worked. I couldn’t force the application to use the data. But I didn’t like the error message. It didn’t tell me what to do. And it wasn’t definitive. And actually, I find absent a strange word in error messages - though that could be me.

We had a conversation about it. We considered what we wanted the user to do if they got this message. We decided that we wanted them to find the piece of data and put it in the source system. And we knew that it would fix it. So we re-worded the error message to be more definitive and helpful. It now says “<piece of information> must be supplied” which I find to be much more pleasing.

If anybody knows of any open source projects that could do with some error message help, let me know. I have some spare time coming up, and I could help out.