Bad Error Messages Are Harming Your Users - The UX of Error Messages

Research from 2009* has shown that error messages increase cortisol (the stress hormone) levels in individuals when they were interacting with computers that faced a system breakdown. Our error messages are physically harming individuals; we have a responsibility to consider the UX as to not affect our users health. This has been illustrated before by Jennifer Aldrich of User Experience Rocks before, and good error messages are particularly important as they:

  • Increase speed of use;
  • Increase users subjective satisfaction; and,
  • Reduce repeat errors and complaints 

UX and Error Messages: Stop Scaring Your Users by Jennifer Aldrich @

So, how do you make good error messages?


    • Be explicit and indicate something has gone wrong
    • Be polite
    • Include message on same screen as where the error occurred
    • Include the product or component name. This helps the user determine where the problem is
    • Make error messages as short as possible while communicating all needed information- or concise but precise
    • Explain how to fix the error
    • Use the users language 
    • Use the correct combination of buttons
      • e.g. if you say "Would you like to" the options are Yes/No not ok/cancel/retry


    • Write like ‘a programmer’ - No Jargon!
    • Blame the user
    • Imply the error is users fault
      •  E.g. “illegal command” 
    • Over-communicate the problem
    • Give unnecessary error messages
    • Include the word "error" in the title bar
    • Use vague generalities such as "syntax error"
    • Use words like “access denied”
    • Use all caps for any word in the error message
    • Use exclamation marks (!) in the messages
    • Give multiple reasons for the error - the user won't know what to fix

    Illustration using hilarious examples from the interwebs

    Didn't find any what exactly? 

    Include the product / component name in the message to help the user determine where the problem in.

    An error occurred? No. It didn't - don't believe you. 

    Use the correct combination of buttons to the statement in the message. 

    OK. Click OK to ok. OK?

    Make error messages as short as possible while communicating all needed information 

    oh....kay. Mutated. Enumerated? 

    Don't write like ‘a programmer’ - No Jargon!

    Ok, so now what do I do? 

    Explain how to fix the error. 

    Let's make better error messages, and user test them, so that we don't increase stress in our already stressful modern lives. 

    * RIEDL, R; et al. Technostress aus einer neurobiologischen Perspektive. (German). : Technostress from a Neurobiological Perspective. (English). Wirtschaftsinformatik -- Zeitschrift Der Angewandten Informatik. 54, 2, 59, Apr. 2012. ISSN: 09376429.