Input Errors: 5 Error Message Design Mistakes

23 June 2016
 Categories: , Articles


It's often necessary for customers or suppliers to submit their information via online forms, but it's important to remember that people are likely to make mistakes. These errors don't necessarily mean that there's a problem with the software design, but the way the application alerts the customer to the issue is crucial to a good user experience. Find out how bad error message design can make an input field unbearable for your customers, and learn more about the five following flaws.

Use of generic error messages

When a customer doesn't input the right information, it's almost pointless alerting him or her to the fact if an error message doesn't give any relevant details of the problem. Error messages that highlight a general issue or say "something is wrong with your information" simply frustrate customers because they then have to go through a process of elimination to work out what's wrong.

Use error messages to highlight problems in specific fields. For example, if somebody inputs their telephone number incorrectly, display an error message that alerts them to this input field. You'll save time and energy because customers can then quickly correct the problem and continue.

Negative tone of voice

User experience designers generally agree that the right tone is essential when dealing with customers online, and this principle extends to error messages. If somebody enters the wrong information in a field, they won't appreciate a message that sounds as though a robot is scolding them.

Try reading error messages out loud, and decide if you think the message has the right tone. Avoid jargon and tech-speak that may confound users, and get straight to the point. Icons and imagery can work well, too. Above all, don't use words that sound as though the system is blaming the user. For example, a statement like, "you entered the wrong information" just sounds accusatory and aggressive.

Reliance on red text

Red text may seem like a good way to alert people to a problem, but this approach can isolate certain users. For example, some people with disabilities can't distinguish the color from others on the screen, which means you'll lose the benefits of the formatting in your error message. What's more, even people who can see the red text may react badly. Red can overstimulate users and may even raise their pulse rate, increasing anxiety.

Bold, underlined or large font is often a better way to draw an error message to a user's attention. Placing the error in a pop-up box on the screen can also help, in which case color becomes irrelevant.

Use of error lists

Error lists summarize all the input mistakes a user made before he or she clicked submit, but this way of presenting information is often overwhelming. It's not difficult to run up a string of error messages, and if a user sees a long list of problems, he or she may simply abandon the task on the basis that it's all just too difficult to fix.

When users make multiple input mistakes, it's better to place separate error messages next to each input field. This allows the user to work his or her way down the page, without immediately feeling that everything is wrong. You can also customize each message appropriately.

Failure to offer the user further help

Users will sometimes make mistakes that they struggle to resolve. For example, if a user enters the wrong user name, he or she may give up hope if he or she tries more than twice and gets a basic message saying "something" is wrong.

A more sophisticated, user-friendly error message will offer further support. For example, a user name error message could include a link that takes the user to a help page or a password recovery form. Your customers will appreciate a direct offer of assistance, and an error message is an oft-overlooked place to include these details.

Badly designed input error messages are an easy way to alienate your customers. Talk to an experienced software developer for more information or advice, or visit websites like