This morning, just as I was turning out of my driveway to begin my commute to work, the most amazing thing happened. I looked up at the sky to see the clouds spelling out this message: “The front burner of your gas stove is still on. To avoid harm, please return to your kitchen immediately and turn off the flow of gas before proceeding to the office.”

Of course, I'm lying. But wouldn't it be great?

Unfortunately, at most moments in our lives, we are on our own—unassisted by auto-reminders, error messages, clear instructions or safety nets. We misplace sunglasses. We leave gas tank caps rolling aimlessly about gas station parking lots. We leave our stoves on.

When we're on the World Wide Web, however, the safety net is vast and reassuring. It's one of the many beauties of the Internet and its applications. To selfishly distort Isaac Newton's third law of motion: for each erroneous action that is taken on a Web site, there should be an equal but opposite error message that puts us back on the path of success.

Why, then, is the average user's performance on the Web still riddled with frustration and, well, unresolved and repeated errors?

Not every element of every Web site design can cater to every user. Each user is different. Therefore, a site that seems to be quite usable to one user may produce occasional erroneous actions for another user. To some degree this is OK, as long as a Web site provides the right assistance to keep the more error-prone user moving forward.

Error messages are essentially the driver's side air bags of a Web site, the reserve ripcord that alleviates a user's virtual, downward spiral. An effective error message should quickly save the user after the primary design and content of an application fail to guide the user down the path of success.

It's important to understand, though, that effective error messages don't just benefit the users of a Web site. Effective error messages ultimately benefit the creators of a Web site by retaining users' interest and attention by creating a less frustrating online experience and building site loyalty, which helps to guide users toward the final goal intended by the site's creators.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Grace Stoeckle operates Grace Stoeckle Studios (www.gracestoecklestudios.com).