Posts Tagged ‘error messages’


Scary error message

August 13, 2014

Westpac, one of Australia’s ‘Big Four’ banks, has been rolling out a new online banking design across Australia for a few months. It was Western Australia’s turn recently. I’ve successfully used the new interface to make a couple of payments, but today I came to a screeching halt as my payment wouldn’t go through. I tried twice and got this message:


I followed their advice and called. After being on hold for about 10 minutes, I explained the situation to the customer service rep, and she asked if I’d received the SMS verification code. I hadn’t, AND I hadn’t been asked to enter it either — I just got this error message.

While she was on the line, I tried a third time and this time I was asked for the SMS verification code, which I received within seconds on my phone. After entering the code, it all worked.

So, why this blog post? Because the error message I got from the bank could well frighten some customers, particularly those who are being dragged kicking and screaming into online banking whether they want it or not.


  • Large, almost red ‘Access unavailable’ heading that tells you very little.
  • An indecipherable message: ‘Sufficient entitlements or verification is required…’ — What are ‘entitlements’ in this context, sufficient or otherwise? And what is ‘verification’? Yes, after I spoke to the customer service person, I learned that it was likely related to the SMS verification code, but that’s NOT what the message says.
  • URL that contains words like ‘error’, ‘forbidden’, and ‘entitlement denied’. Nothing like scaring your customers!

In their favor, they at least gave a phone number to call, but it’s a generic phone number for the entire bank, not a specific number for online banking or online banking using the new system — I had to press a few buttons and talk into the void to get that far, and then I was on hold for nearly 10 minutes before someone could answer my query. In the meantime, my banking session timed out after 5 minutes of inactivity on the site and I had to re-enter my password.

Overall, I don’t mind the new interface (see note below), and timing out and requiring you to re-enter your password after 5 minutes is a good idea too. But they really need to work on their error messages so that they don’t scare their customers if something goes wrong. Perhaps a list of possible reasons for this error message would help.

NOTE: One final thing: Although the new interface is clean and easy to use, it DOESN’T use responsive design!! While they tout that it’s for all devices — phones, tablets, desktops, etc. — the design for desktops isn’t responsive.  (I haven’t tried it on my phone or tablet, so can’t report how responsive the design is on those devices.) On my desktop PC, I have my monitors swivelled into ‘portrait’ mode to make it easier for me to work on long documents, but the bank’s design for desktop is a fixed width in the browser viewport, and I have to scroll horizontally unless I make the viewport much wider and spread it across two monitors. VERY BAD design. And yes, I’ve lodged a complaint about it.


Flash Player v Firefox

June 11, 2014

I’m fed up with Adobe’s Flash player and Firefox not playing well together. Flash Player continually crashes, causing Firefox to not respond for a short period, then you have to reload the page where Flash crashed. Adobe sends out many Flash Player updates and Firefox gets updated regularly too, though nowhere near as often as Flash. I don’t know which company’s environment doesn’t like the other. And I don’t care. I would just like them to play nice together in the sandbox, but they don’t seem capable of that. This has been going on for months, if not a year or more. And I’m heartily sick of it. Yes, I use Chrome for some things, and IE for others, but Firefox is my browser of choice.

All this is a preamble to what has to be the longest error message I’ve ever seen as a result of a Flash crash. I’ve reduced the size of it to show how long the string is — a string of garbled letters and numbers, no doubt for security purposes. I would guess only a computer could interpret it. You sure wouldn’t want to have to read the error message over the phone to a human as the possibilities for getting it wrong are enormous.

Click the image to view it larger, if you dare!




I have to do what?

March 27, 2013

Sometimes things just work and you get a good feeling from the website — as though the owners cared enough about their customers to take the time to make the user experience friendly and useful (see yesterday’s post:

Then on other days you get something like this:


I have to press ‘Cancel’ on the next screen to view the offer? What the…?

You know what the worst of it was? There was NO ‘Cancel’ button AT ALL on the next screen. And you had no choice but to click OK here and get taken to the offers screen… the one you couldn’t cancel out of.

Then there’s the odd mix of sentence and title case… and the Warning symbol…

Talk about frustrating!


Well, hello there!

February 26, 2013

I spent some time last weekend going through my Firefox bookmarks to see what’s still valid, what’s still relevant (to me), etc. and generally just doing a good clean-up of them.

One of the sites I went to had this:


The site says’ ‘Hi’??? Really? And ‘are being requested’? Sheesh.


Australia Post: Please test your web forms

December 27, 2012

Australia Post invited me to participate in an online survey — the invitation was on the printed receipt I received from a recent transaction. Off I went to the URL, and got stymied by the first field:


I clicked the ‘here’ link and got this:


I clicked OK, then clicked ‘here’ again and this time I got the correct information.

So what went wrong?

I figured it out eventually after a couple of attempts using different scenarios. When I went to the URL either my cursor was automatically placed in the first field, or I put it there ready to fill in the form. At that point I realized I didn’t know what the Outlet ID was, so I clicked ‘here’. However, the form still thought my cursor was in the first field (not moved and clicked on ‘here’), so it spat out the error message above.

It’s only after I clicked OK, that the cursor moved out of the first field and so clicking ‘here’ again opened the correct pop-up window with the information I needed.

Some simple user testing would have shown that issue almost immediately. So I can only assume that no user testing was done, perhaps not even any in-house testing. <sigh>

It wouldn’t have taken much testing — this form only had about eight simple fields to complete. And someone went to the bother of writing an error message in case the user did something wrong. This user didn’t do anything wrong — she clicked on the link, but as the web page didn’t recognize that her cursor was no longer in the first field, it spat out the error.

An even better option would have been for the developer to have put the user assistance right on the interface — there was plenty of room to have an image that highlighted the required information (which was in the pop-up window instead). By putting the user assistance right in the interface, the user wouldn’t have to have hunted out the ‘here’ link, got the same result I did, and if they persevered, they would have eventually got the pop-up window with the image — that’s some six or more clicks… for ONE field on this form. A simple image showing the two areas of the printed receipt that contained the information you had to add would have saved a lot of time and frustration.


Cryptic error message

October 12, 2012

I tried to go to a web page and got this message instead:

A classic example of a meaningless (to this reader anyway) error message.

According to Wikipedia, a 503 error message is:

503 Service Unavailable The server is currently unavailable (because it is overloaded or down for maintenance). Generally, this is a temporary state.

So why couldn’t this message say that? ‘No healthy backends’, ‘guru meditation’, a cryptic XID number (whatever ‘XID’ is), and ‘varnish cache server’ mean ABSOLUTELY nothing to me.

But ‘server overloaded or down for maintenance’ does mean something. Some plain language training wouldn’t have gone astray for the person who wrote this error message.


Another meaningless error message

April 2, 2012

You’d think the bigger companies would have staff or contract technical writers/editors who they’d use to check the messages the user sees, but I guess not if this error message from SmartFTP is any indication. Flood control is enabled? Really?? and WTF is ‘flood control’ to an ordinary user? The second part of the error gives a clue that it might be related to an overloaded search facility, but ‘flood control’?

Flood control is enabled


Escape? Cancel? What…?

November 24, 2011

I was opening a PowerPoint presentation on my client’s network, using my not super fast VPN connection. I got this cryptic message:

So, I have to press the ESC cancel to stop the presentation from opening. Fair enough, though it could have been written in simpler language (e.g. Press the ESC key to stop opening the document.)

However, that Cancel button just confuses the message. You have two instances of ‘cancel’ in the one message box and it’s not clear as to what the Cancel button does. Does it just cancel the message (I suspect it does) and the document keeps on opening, or does it substitute for the ESC key?

Someone who’s not very familiar with creating a PowerPoint presentation or presenting one, may not be familiar with using ESC to get out of full screen mode once the presentation is open.  Thus they are likely to be really confused by this message.

A better option for the developers/UI text people may be to keep the message, and instead of a Cancel button, adding a ‘close’ icon at the top of the message box, or changing the text on the button to something like Close, though I still think that’s not clear either. Even better would be a wordier message like Close this message. Sure, it’s more text, but there would be no confusion as to what that button does.


Error messages that make you feel stupid

November 18, 2011

Back in 2008 I wrote a post on writing useful error messages (, where I stated:

The worst kind of error is one that tells the user nothing and doesn’t help them recover from the error condition.

Also, don’t insult the user or call them stupid… there are many ways developers call users stupid without saying so. For example: “The password is wrong! [OK]”. This sort of error message doesn’t help the user at all, and they feel idiotic for not knowing ‘what the computer wants’. The exclamation mark so beloved by certain developers is like a slap in the face and just adds insult to injury.

Well, I came across one a few days ago that:

Here it is:

Error message with an exclamation point

Thanks for making me feel unworthy

There was no other information on how I could get these obviously special privileges available only to the very few. Even a line about contacting my system administrator might have lessened the impact of this error message.

Removing the exclamation mark would have done a lot to convert this message from a ‘You are too stupid to have privileges’ insult to just a statement of fact. That single punctuation mark in a message such as this has the power to make a person feel like an idiot.

[Links last checked November 2011]


It’s not rocket science…

November 23, 2010

But from the way some web forms are created — and their error messages — you’d think it was really difficult to get it right.

Medibank Private, the Australian health insurance organization I wrote about the other day, emailed me a link to answer a quick survey about my recent experiences with them. I was happy to do so, but frustrated — yet again — with web form and error message stuff that isn’t rocket science.

In this case, a simple field on a form for my phone number so they could contact me if I was happy to answer any further questions. I duly entered my phone number, using the standard convention in Australia for writing phone numbers — (area_code) <four_numbers> <four numbers>. There was no user assistance on the survey form next to the field to tell me how to format my phone number. So I pressed tab to move to the next field.

And I got this error message:

Hello? Macquarie Dictionary defines a digit as ‘any of the Arabic figures 0, 1 … 9’. I had entered 10 digits, despite what the error message said. Maybe, just maybe, they meant ‘characters’, which are totally different than ‘digits’.

So I removed the parentheses from the area code. Nope. It didn’t like that either and repeated the same error message about ’10 digits’. So I removed the spaces from the phone number and then it accepted my phone number without further complaint.

So, what’s the problem here and how could the survey designer fix it? There are several problems that I can see:

  • It would appear that there was no usability testing of this survey form with real-life, ordinary users. Anyone observing someone trying to complete that field would have realized that there are many ways to enter a phone number, and thus many ways to get it wrong.
  • There was no user assistance next to the field to tell you that you can’t enter spaces, parentheses, dashes etc. — you can only enter one long string of 10 numbers.
  • The designer used an incorrect term in the error message. Digits and characters are two quite different things, so to tell me that I had to enter 10 digits when I had already done so was incorrect.
  • And using ‘digits’? Puh-lease. What about the more understandable term, ‘numbers’? ‘Digit’ might be fine for database designers, but users use ‘numbers’ or perhaps ‘numerals’.
  • Finally, don’t shout at me like I’m an idiot. The error message is in red — that’s enough to tell me you think I’m stupid, so don’t add insult to injury by using upper case text to shout at me too!

How could the survey designer have fixed this form?

  • Add some user assistance text next to the field to show an example of the accepted format (e.g. ‘Enter your 10-digit phone number; do not use spaces or other non-numeric characters. For example: 0712345678.’)
  • Improve the error message: If an error was made after providing the correct format in the user assistance, then repeat those instructions with an error message worded something like this: “Enter 10 numbers with no spaces, dashes, brackets, etc.” In sentence case.

It’s not rocket science…

Update: I wanted to rent a car online for my trip to the US for the WritersUA Conference. Here’s how Dollar deal with phone numbers:

Simple, easy to understand, and no need for an error message if the user follows the instructions/pattern shown to the right of the field.

[Link last checked November 2010]