Don’t make website errors your user’s fault


Error pages. What are they good for?

We all know that the perfect website is an unachievable goal. Sometimes what a user is looking for just doesn’t exist, sometimes servers and systems fail, sometimes a bit of errant code gets into the page and causes an error — in the words of Osgood Fielding III, “nobody’s perfect”. For that reason error pages exist.

A little while ago, I was searching for train times on the National Rail Enquiries website and repeatedly encountered this error message:

“Error. We are sorry, we are not able to find any trains that match your journey details. There are some possible reasons below. Please try again.

You specified a ‘via’ station, but also asked for the cheapest fares. The cheapest tickets may not be available on the route you requested. Try again, without the via station.

There are no trains running when you want to go. Try again, travelling at a different time.”

I got annoyed for two reasons: I knew the route and time I had searched for existed — it is a route I travel frequently, and I knew for a fact that there were trains on the day and at the time I wished to travel, as I had traveled on that day of the week around the same time before. I had also not requested to travel via anywhere, so that was not the problem.

So, it was maddening to get the error repeatedly, even when I searched for a different time and day. I believe that there was a problem with the system, as every route and time I tried resulted in the same error message. Which brings me to the second thing that infuriated me.

As I stated above, no website works perfectly, and certainly not 100% of the time — website errors are inevitable so I expect things to go wrong for me sometimes. What annoyed me most wasn’t getting the error page, but the fact that the error message suggested I was to blame for the mistake. I knew the error wasn’t mine, but as far as the National Rail Enquiries website was concerned, it was blameless.

A screenshot of the homepage of the National Rail Enquiries website

Website errors shouldn’t make you feel bad

It doesn’t engender very positive feelings when a website keeps implying you’re an idiot — even if I had been the one making the mistake. If it was because the system had failed or was overloaded, wouldn’t it have been better for the error message to have made some admission of the fault, rather than pin the blame on me?

There are also ways to tell a user they have searched for something that doesn’t exist without making them feel stupid. Something along the lines of “we’re sorry but we’re having difficulty finding times for the train you’re looking for. There may be no trains available for the route or time you requested, or we may be having technical issues that affect results. Perhaps you could try your search again, but at a different time or day?”. It’s the same information, but imparted in a less accusatory and curt manner.

In short, try to avoid making website errors your users’ fault. The user may be an idiot, but it won’t make him or her happy if you keep telling them they are.

About the Author

Nick Irons

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Nick Irons is Co-founder and Creative Director of Tribus Creative Ltd., a brand communications company for small businesses. He spent almost fifteen years in the entertainment industry as a writer, producer, and performer, before moving into branding and design consultancy. He is a fervent believer in the power of storytelling to unlock the value in brands both big and small.