Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Being Cheap with Error Messages

Fixing the usability of error messages ...

"The user didn’t enter their billing address over at CollegeBoard.com, when registering for an SAT test. It made sense not to enter the billing address, since it matched the address they entered on the previous page.

The site, being partially clever, decided to pre-fill in the zip code, but no other address fields.

When the user pressed the “Next” button, expecting to go to the next stage of the registration process, they were confronted with this error message:

The error message from not filling out the form

!The ZIP that you entered doesn’t match the City/State you entered. Please verify the information.

Of course, this error message is wrong on so many levels. For one, we did enter a city & state that matched the zip — on the previous page. Second, it’s clear we hadn’t entered anything on this page, so why would the site say this? Third, the field isn’t “ZIP” — it’s “ZIP Code” — and City/State are two separate fields, not just one. And why is there an exclamation point as the first character?

Because the developers only had one error condition (the user entered all the fields but they didn’t match in their lookup table), they crafted an error message that doesn’t fit the scenario our user encountered. And since it doesn’t fit, it takes the user a fair amount of logic to debug.

What could the developers have done?

1. Craft an additional error message when the City or State field has been left unentered that tells the user they need to enter the field.
2. When encountering one or both fields unentered, ask the user if they’d like to use the elements from the previous page.
3. Automatically pre-fill the address with the previous page’s value. (Of course, this creates more work for the user if it’s not the right address, because they have to correctly wipe out the old information.)
4. Have a “Use previous page’s data” checkbox (probably with a better label, since the user thinks of the “previous page’s data” as something other than what we just called it)."    (Continued via UIE Brain Sparks)    [Usability Resources]

College Board Error Message - Usability, User Interface Design

College Board Error Message

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