Like it or not, technology isn't perfect. Technology can and will break, causing errors when it does. We've all experienced errors while browsing the web. Unfortunately, we've all experienced errors on our own websites. Maybe a server crashed and we couldn't access a site. Or, maybe a search form didn't give us results, even though it should have. Or, maybe we clicked a broken link and landed on a 404 error page. Regardless of the specific error, the point is things break.
Matthew Edgar, web consultant at Elementive, gave a talk explaining the problem errors cause and what we can do to correct this issue. You can watch the video below or read more information about this issue below.
You can also view a slide deck of the presentation:
When things break, it has a negative effect on the people visiting our website. Think about how you respond to the errors you encounter. You are frustrated and annoyed by that error. That error is getting in your way and preventing you from doing whatever it is you wanted to do.
The same is true for our visitors. Visitors who see an error—any type of error—are frustrated because that error is in their way. The frustration isn't the problem, though. The problem is what visitors do about the frustration:
You can think of this as a ripple effect. The problem isn't that people encounter an error on your website, it is what happens after people see that error that really matters the most. The more errors people encounter, the worse this problem becomes.
All right, so what? Errors are bad and can cost you customers. We can just fix those errors. Right? No big deal.
Unfortunately, the other reality regarding errors is that we'll never entirely get rid of errors on our websites. We might (should!) debug thoroughly while programming our site. We might (should!) respond quickly to the errors as we discover them.
But, let's face it, when it comes to web technology we are dealing with complex systems. In any complex system, there will always be something that doesn't work great for the people visiting our websites. There will always be some group of people who are unable to use some part of our website, like our search form or contact form. This isn't pessimism, just the reality of technology.
What are we to do about this? The point here is to accept that errors are going to occur. When they occur, those errors will have a negative effect on the people visiting our website. What we need to do is figure out how to reduce the frustration so that we can reduce those negative impacts. In other words, how do we get rid of the negative ripple effects when people inevitably encounter errors on our websites?
What we can do about is build error messages that help our visitors move beyond that error. The easier people can move beyond the error, the less frustration they will have regarding the error. Remember, what causes that frustration in the first place is that the error acts as a road block preventing people from doing whatever it is they wanted to do.
Given that, we need to create friendly and helpful errors that give people who reach an error the ability to recover from that error. We want people to stay on our website even though they reached an error. If somebody can reach an error, recover from that error, and stay on our website, that ripple effect starts to disappear.
Please know, we are not suggesting you don't get rid of the errors. If you can easily get rid of an error technically, then by all means please do so. However, you need to accept that errors are going to happen. Because of that, we need to focus on the experience our visitors have when they reach an error and do our best to help visitors recover from that error.