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User-friendly error messages: 7 tips

Why are error messages important?

A lot of websites make usability mistakes on their form pages. And that costs visitors.

On a form page that's extra painful because if you lose a visitor there, you loose a very valuable visitor. A visitor who's willing to make the effort to get in touch with you or perhaps even to order something.

A visitor who fills out a form (or tries to) is a visitor you should cherish. Here's a few tips.

1. Use the language of the form

If the form is in English, the error messages should be in English.

Sounds self-evident, I know. And on single-language websites this usually isn't a problem. But on multi-language websites it often is.

Error messages are often overlooked in the translation process. Make sure they aren't on your website.

2. Use understandable language

Don't use code or words only programmers know the meaning of like "Customerrelation_gender_error" or "FieldT12empty". That's pretty much all I'm going to say about that one.

3. Be nice

How hard is it to just be nice?

The person filling out your form is a potential customer. If he forgets to fill out a field, say so nicely.

4. Be specific

General error messages like "Fill out all the required fields" are an excellent way to scare off potential customers. An error message like "Invalid credit card" isn't exactly helpful either.

Give the user more details about what went wrong and what he can do to fix it: "There was an error processing your credit card. Please check your name, credit card number, and card expiration date for correctness. Remember, these must match the card exactly.".

The more specific your error message is, the easier it is for the user to fix the problem.

5. Don't blame the user

If the user has made a mistake while filling out your form it's not a good idea to rub his nose in it. Don't tell the user what he did wrong. Tell him what he should do to get it right. Don't write:

  • You forgot to fill out your email address.

But write:

  • Please fill out your email address.

6. Avoid spelling errors

Check the spelling of your error messages. Error messages are hidden away and often get overlooked. Make sure an editor checks them.

7. How do you check all this?

Leave your form empty, press the 'Send' button and read the error messages.

Imagine it's somebody else's website and see if everything's clear and if there isn't anything that would annoy you.

Next, put in some 'wrong' data (email address without an @, postal code that doesn't exist, date of birth in 2020, etc) and see what kind of error messages that generates.

It really isn't that hard. So hop to it!

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