Software Bugs and Error Messages

I haven’t been able to post from my Weblog recently because of a bug in the software I use. As it turns out, it wasn’t so much a bug as an inaccurate error message. Speaking as a software developer, this is an extremely common phenomenon. A user’s frustration often arises not from bugs, but because the error messages they receive don’t help them solve the problem.

The origin of this problem stems from the way the programmer thinks. He’s coding along, thinking about what he needs the program to do. He (and, sorry, 9 out of 10 are still men) is generally not thinking about the user (particularly when he’s actually writing code). So, ultimately, he designs a program that ‘captures’ the error, displays the most convenient (and often generic) message possible, and proceeds. There are lots of reasons for this–not enough usability training, not enough time to write decent error messages, lack of interest in what happens when things go wrong, and so on.

The best thing software developers can do is review their error messages with a usability expert and/or a technical writer. If available, the former tends to be proactive (dictating how the program should work) while the latter tends to be reactive (generally consulted after the fact, he or she performs triage on the error messages).

To complete my example, the error message I was actually receiving read [Macro error: The file “C:Program FilesRadio UserLandwww#prefs.txt” wasn’t found.] First step in the diagnosis: does this file actually exist? Indeed it does. So, not only is this error message not describing my actual problem, it is pretty much lying to me. As it turns out, there is an undocumented bug (because a documented bug is a feature) in the software wherein the parser craps out if it finds too many double-quotation marks. That’s pretty lame, but what’s more, there’s no means of determining it from the error message. For the record, when I say ‘too many’, I don’t mean an erroneous extra double-quote in a mark-up tag, I mean like, you can’t have more than x per blog entry. Can you smell the bogosity?

What the error message should have said is: Radio Userland does not support double-quotation marks (“) in the WYSIWYG view. Use single-quotation marks (‘) instead.

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