Be Humble, Helpful, Human in Your Error Messages: Examples from Twitter and Facebook

I’m thinking about error messages, and how two examples I stumbled upon just today — both short, both probably related to some temporary system problem, and both on popular social media sites — contrast wildly in their approach and in the resulting customer satisfaction I’m now feeling. One site uses humility, helpfulness, and humanity — and the other is completely devoid of those qualities.

The two sites I’m talking about you’ve probably heard of: Twitter and Facebook.

Here is the Twitter error, which I got when trying to direct message someone:

Twitter Error Message
Note the humility: “Sorry! We did something wrong.” They are taking the blame. Maybe it’s their fault, maybe it’s mine. But they don’t care — they take the heat. And I appreciate that. Notice also, the helpfulness — they gave me some advice to remedy the problem: wait a minute and try again. Sure enough, I tried again in a minute, and it worked. Finally, notice that the message is conversational, as if a person is talking directly to me. This was a humble, helpful, human error message.

Let’s contrast that with Facebook’s error, which I encountered when trying to view past birthdays by clicking a little left-pointing triangle to go back in time.

Facebook Error
Um, okay. Maybe just a temporary glitch. Let me just try clicking that little triangle again. Nope. Same “Bad Parameter” message.

Unlike the Twitter error message, Facebook’s message is not humble — no admission of fault. Nor is it helpful — no possible reasons for failure or advice on how to proceed from here. Nor, for that matter, is it very much human. What I mean is this is pure system speak. For the friend whose birthday I missed last week, would I just tell them “Sorry, I missed your birthday, but the timing of it was really a bad parameter for me.” No, I don’t talk like that, and very few Facebook users do either.  Then there’s the error message itself, “There was an error understanding the request” — yes, I see that. I assume it’s your error, not mine, since you gave me the option of trying to look back in time. But can you tell me a little more? It’s not friendly at all; it’s matter-of-fact, plain, unhelpful, say-no-more-than-I really-need-to language.  Some well meaning  developer probably created a generic message like this that gets invoked in many places around the site. Then, there’s the audacious “Okay” button, which, by clicking, I’m implicitly agreeing to the fact that yes, it’s okay that I screwed something up on Facebook’s site; just accept it and move along. Better would be a “close” button, or a simple “X” like Twitter gives me. The ultimate face-slapper is that no matter how many times I tried, I could never make my request work — which, I guess is what they were intending by not offering me a humble, helpful, human message.

In my job, we try to always do all three in our errors: we say we’re sorry, we tell them what went wrong, and we tell them how to fix it. In a small percentage of the problems, if we can’t give them an online remedy, we’ll admit fault and then give them our customer service phone number. We never, ever talk like a computer or a developer, or leave the customer with no recourse.

The takeaways I have from this are:

  • Twitter, I dig you. You’re cool, but not above admitting fault. You want me to succeed, even when I fail. All the more reason to keep using your site.
  • Facebook, um, you really don’t care much about me or my user experience because you know I’m going to come back anyway. Damn you.
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