Firefox gets human about error messages

Isn’t it great when things just work?

Sometimes – especially after updating computer software – things do go wrong. Earlier this week, a website news ticker crashed my installation of Firefox. Normally I’d just restart it and get on with what I was doing, but on this occasion the team at Mozilla struck a very pleasant note — see the image below (I’ve removed the website name to protect the innocent).

I was pretty pleased with that. Even though it was software that had failed, Firefox provided me with a human-sounding error message, tried to explain why the problem had occurred and gave me some guidance on how I could recover from the browser crash.

Jakob Nielson’s guidance on these matters sprung to mind (though note that he is as loathed as he is revered by the usability community!)

According to Nielson’s website, Useit, the error message should:

  1. Clearly show that an error has occurred – with a highly, visible error message that indicates where things went wrong
  2. Be polite and not blame the users – avoiding terms like "illegal command"
  3. Be explained in a human language — not techno-babble
  4. Describe the problem — explain what happened
  5. Provide advice on how to recover from the problem – a quick fix plan
  6. Preserve as much of the user’s work as possible – so that they don’t have to do everything over again
  7. Guess the correct action and let users pick it form a list of fixes – where possible, guess what they were trying to do and provide the correct solution
  8. Educate users by providing links to pages with an explanation of the problem.

On this basis, I’d give 6.5 out of 8 for Mozilla Firefox. The team successfully provided the first 6 recommendations, almost provided an answer to number 7 and failed on point 8.

Grade A – Good work