On the subject of errors

It’s an unavoidable fact of life that sometimes things just go wrong. Sometimes it’s due to factors in your control, sometimes it just isn’t; but things will indubitably go wrong. We tend to get judged on this sometimes, others are only human after all, but we also get judged on how we deal with such calamities. Do we go to pieces? Do we deal responsibly with the problem? Do we try and blame it on others?

I always find that the best way to deal with errors and faults is to try and put a human face on the problem, maybe by treating it with a touch of humour. It’s important to realise that others are just as frustrated as you are, and well, putting a smile on their face can just make it that little bit better.

I came across a good example of this today. PayPerPost have just been rolling out a new version of their website this week and have had their fair share of difficulties. Personally I prefer rolling out incremental updates to a site, but they went the whole hog, deploying a man-year’s worth of effort in one go. And when you’re affecting such a huge change, well, the risk that something goes wrong is just magnified.

They have added a great feature though, to alleviate some of the pain when somthing breaks. We’ve all see ugly web server errors; you know the one that just gives you a white page with a bunch of meanless goddlydegook suggesting you speak to your administrator about fixing your computer. Well, the dev team have turned this on it’s head. When the server breaks, you now get this error:

(thanks to Eve for the screenshot)

Which immediately puts a smile on your face! Yes, someone screwed up, the fault wouldn’t have happened if the infrastructure was sound, if the dev team hadn’t made an error, or if the testers had done their job, any one of a hundred different reasons. However, the user is presented with an acknowledgement that something went wrong, together with a way of letting someone know that they had a problem; and this can make all the difference to somone pounding at their computer at 3:00am while trying to get some work done.

There’s a number of places around the web where you can see this sort of approach, the Page Not Found error on The Joke Shop is one I had implemented sometime back. Remember, faults and errors will happen, but if we design defensively, we can make it a better experience for the user.

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