As an ecommerce vendor, you want your online store to function as smoothly as possible, allowing site visitors to browse, select items, and complete purchases with ease. However, sometimes this isn’t possible: Online shoppers may make mistakes when entering information, or they may ask your platform to perform a function that it isn’t set up to do.
This is where error messaging comes in. Error messages let website users know when a website is unable to do what the user wants. While there are many ways to write error messages, some are more effective than others. Here’s a primer on designing error messages and tips for writing better error messages for your ecommerce store.
What is an error message?
A website error message is a notification or prompt displayed on a web page when something goes wrong during a user’s interaction with the site. These messages inform users that the requested action cannot be completed due to reasons including server issues, incorrect user input, connectivity problems, or other technical mishaps.
Error messages usually appear as pop-up text boxes in browsers; users click within the text box to remove them from the screen.
Common error messages
Many error messages combine numerical error code with error details that explain the nature of the problem. Common website error messages include:
- 404 not found. This error occurs when the requested page or resource cannot be found on the server. Many generic errors are signified by a 404 error code.
- 500 internal server error. This is a generic error message indicating a problem on the server’s end that prevents it from fulfilling the request.
- 403 forbidden. This error indicates that the server understood the request but refuses to authorize it.
- Connection timeout. A connection timeout happens when a server takes too long to respond, resulting in a timeout error.
- 400 bad request. A 400 error code signifies that the server cannot process the request due to a client-side issue, such as invalid input or syntax.
These messages help users understand what went wrong as they navigate the website. The most helpful error messages offer guidance on why the error occurred and what actions might resolve the issue, like checking one’s internet connection, reviewing the URL, or contacting the website administrator for assistance.
Why are error messages important?
- Feedback and communication
- User guidance
- Improved user experience
- Error resolution
- Building trust with clients
Error messages are important because they help website visitors troubleshoot issues and thus improve their overall user experience (UX). What’s more, they can aid developers in debugging and fixing problems that may be dragging down site performance.
Here are some of the specific attributes that make an error message helpful:
Feedback and communication
Error messages inform users that something has gone wrong, providing feedback on the status of their action. They bridge the communication gap between the system and the user, preventing confusion and frustration.
A good error message often suggests steps to resolve the issue, guiding users on what they can do next to correct the problem. This can include instructions like checking the internet connection, revising input, or contacting customer support.
Improved user experience
Helpful error messages contribute to a better user experience (UX). Clear and descriptive messages help your site visitors understand the problem, thus enhancing your platform’s usability.
For developers and site administrators, good error messages serve as diagnostic tools. They provide insights into what caused the error, aiding staff as they seek to improve the website or application.
Building trust with clients
Displaying error messages can demonstrate a commitment to user satisfaction and a well-maintained system. When users encounter easily resolvable errors, they’re more likely to trust the platform and continue using it.
Tips for writing good error messages
- Use clear and specific language
- Explain the problem
- Offer solutions
- Use visual cues
- Avoid blame or negativity
- Maintain consistency
- Provide error codes if necessary
- Pay attention to site security
- Test and iterate
The most effective error messages explain what went wrong and, when possible, help the user fix whatever issue is impacting site performance. Here are nine tips for writing helpful, effective error messages that improve a visitor’s experience on your website or within your ecommerce store.
Use clear and specific language
There’s no need to bombard your site visitors with technical jargon. Be brief and to the point. Write in a conversational tone, using simple language that treats the reader like an online shopper, not a tech support specialist.
Explain the problem
Describe the error or issue in detail, giving users enough information to understand the problem. For example, a user might make an inline validation error on an addressform by leaving out their city and ZIP code. Specify the error and direct the user to the place on the screen where they left out information.
When something goes wrong, go beyond telling the user what happened. When possible, provide actionable advice and direct users toward a solution. If the issue is more complicated, provide links to tutorials and FAQ pages that may help users correct errors on their own. You could embed videos on these pages or offer chatbot functionality.
Use visual cues
Consider incorporating icons, colors, or special formatting when you display error messages. This can help users comprehend the error message, even if they lack a technical background. Make sure your messages are easy to see and contrast with the color palette on your website pages. For example, if your site mostly uses blue and white, consider an error message that features red text on a gray background.
Avoid blame or negativity
Use positive words that guide the site visitor toward a solution. Avoid negative words that blame the user when an error occurs. Condescending language can alienate customers and serves no purpose in finding a resolution.
Error messages across your platform should follow a consistent style and tone. Don’t spend too much time worrying about edge cases that users are unlikely to face. Instead, focus on the most common types of errors, and use those to set the template for your messages.
Provide error codes if necessary
You may wish to include error codes (examples include “403 Forbidden” and “404 Not Found”). These error codes can help support staff when assisting a user or debugging site code.
Pay attention to site security
In some cases, poorly worded error messages can inadvertently reveal sensitive information. Provide easy-to-understand, actionable but generic error messages instead of detailed, highly technical information to help protect sensitive data.
Test and iterate
Continuously test error messages with real users to gauge their effectiveness. For instance, you may think that your error messages are easy to follow, but a user’s input may reveal that it has too much technical information and makes it difficult to know what the correct action to follow is.
Error messages FAQ
What is a good error message?
A good error message conveys important information at first glance without overwhelming the reader with dense technical information. Only a small portion of site visitors will have a tech background, so gear your message toward those with less technical knowledge.
What is the best color for an error message?
An error message should stand out in contrast to the core color palette on your website. For example, if your site mostly uses blue and white, consider an error message that features red text on a gray background.
When do you use error messages on your website?
Use error messages when a site visitor’s actions do not comport with the user interface. Scenarios range from a person entering their email incorrectly on a contact form to them seeking to access a restricted area of the website.