Almost useless


Message stating "Failed to install updated." Title bar is "Microsoft AutoUpdate"

Source: Microsoft

An interesting example of an almost useless message.

The message tells me that it’s from “Microsoft AutoUpdate” – so at least I know it’s something to do with Microsoft.

It also tells me “Failed to install update.” This is less useful. What update? Why did it fail? What can I do about it?

Messages like this are very egocentric. Microsoft assumes that their application (or driver, or whatever it is that’s failed to update) is at the forefront of my mind and that I know what it is. But it isn’t and I don’t.

Messages like this are damaging to the brand. I see this one frequently, and it annoys me frequently, and each time I see it I like Microsoft less.

Error messages matter. They are an essential form of communication with the user. They say something important. In this case, the message is saying that Microsoft really doesn’t care what’s happened, and that I’m on my own.

Furthermore, the lack of a button means that I have to click the little “dismiss” icon at top left to get rid of the message.

Oddly enough, the only reason I turned on AutoUpdate for Microsoft products was that I was so annoyed by the dialog box prompting me to check for updates immediately after I’d completed a manual update.

Perhaps Microsoft can argue that the message “belongs” to the MacOS and is somehow Apple’s responsibility or fault.

The perfect error message


"An error message reading: "Hi, it appears you've previously Signed In to another Optus website using a Optus Mobile Number. Member Services is only available for Optus Internet users. If you are attempting to Sign In with your Optus Internet username, please click on the 'Logout' button in the top right of your screen."

Source: Optus

This error message is perfect because it does *everything* wrong.

An error message should:

  • Explain what happened
  • Explain why it happened
  • Enable you to fix the problem.

This message implies that the user had signed in with a mobile (cellphone) number. I hadn’t. Even if I had, it’s unclear why this should be a problem. The solution offered is to “Logout”.

An organisation should use consistent language. Here, we have “sign in” and “logout” – a clear indication that there is internal dysfunction and disconnection.

A key component of a trusted website is good grammar. Here we have “a Optus Mobile number” instead of “an Optus Mobile number” and “Member Services” treated as singular (“Member Services is only…”). Probably the rationale for the latter is that “Member Services” is an entity of some sort, but it’s clearly a case of the organisation speaking its language rather than that of the user.

The message also has two conflicted personas. The first is the one that opens with “Hi” – it’s the voice that Optus uses in its advertising, and even in its installation guides. When everything is fine, that tone can be acceptable, but when things go pear-shaped, it quickly sounds insincere, flippant or blatantly uncaring.

The internal focus is also apparent in the sentence: “If you are attempting to Sign In with your Optus Internet username…” which assumes that the user knows what an Optus Internet username is. I can only speak from my own experience, and I don’t know what it is (nor do I even have an Optus mobile phone number, so that part of the message is doubly confusing).

In fact, the whole message is so bizarre that the fact that the referenced “Logout” button “in the top right of your screen” does not in fact exist seems only incidental, a mere peccadillo amidst a multitude of other sins.

Insufficient guidance

A warning that the user "should" transfer items to their iTunes library before proceeding, but with no way to proceed to do so

Source: Apple iTunes

If you warn somebody about something, you should provide a way for them to act accordingly. If I choose “Continue”, what are the consequences?

(The message reads: “There are purchased items… that have not been transferred to your iTunes library. You should transfer these items to your iTunes library before updating this iPad. Are you sure you want to continue?”)

Mixed messages

A visually confusing label, which can be interpreted as being attached to the "hang up" or "mute" buttons.

Source: Skype.

The words “Microphone muted” are adjacent to the “mute” icon. However, the words are in a shaded area that is clearly connected with the “hang up” icon. The principles of proximity and closure compete.

When actively engaged (sorry) in a phone conversation, it’s easy to hang up inadvertently. At least, it was easy for me.

I believe Skype has now fixed this by a redesign that eliminates the conflict.


A dialog box, with the heading "Are you sure?" The text states: "You have an upload in progress and quitting now will cancel it".The two buttons are "Yes, quit" and "Cancel".

Source: Some image uploader.

Mismatches between text and avaiable buttons can be very confusing. A common example is having “OK” and “Cancel” as options when the question asked requires an answer of “Yes” or “No”. Although that’s perhaps grammatically annoying rather than highly confusing.

This little example, however, is a gem. Selecting “Cancel” doesn’t cancel the upload, but selecting “Yes” does. I think.