article (Sun Dec 08 2013)

The User Experience of Error Pages

  • #uxdesign
  • #programming
  • #errors

404 error pages. We have all seen them. None of us love to see them. They are the page that as a designer, you wish your users never have to see.

In a perfect world, nothing ever fails. All database requests succeed. There is no maintenance downtime. The user never mistypes a URL.

Unfortunately(or fortunately), we don’t live in a perfect world.

Every once in a while I come across articles that showcase amazing and hilarious error pages.

With so many examples out there, it is clear that a good many of us are keen on making landing on an error page a beautiful and happy experience. However, there are still a lot many who cannot justify the effort behind using a creative error page. After all, its an error page, isn't it? It’s the user’s fault. And the user will probably type in another URL in the flash of a second. So, why bother making something creative for a page that is nothing more but a placeholder. Something that is intended to be ignored by the user.

Well, for those of you who have not had the opportunity or the inclination to invest in an error page and you run sites that have thousands of visitors everyday, you need to give a serious second thought. Why, you ask? Because the error page is a critical part a user experience. It is a critical part not just for the sake of being creative, but also from a marketing standpoint.

Let me explain the significance of an error page with an analogy.

Imagine yourself in a dark tunnel. The tunnel has many passageways. Its pitch dark. And you need to find your way through the tunnel to come out of the other side. Now imagine that you have a friend with you, who has travelled through this tunnel before and remembers how to walk through it. Your friend holds your hand and walks with you and based upon what he remembers, gives you direction so that you never take a wrong turn. You sift through the tunnel safely, making your own guesses, talking to your friend. Sometimes your guesses are right and sometimes they are wrong. But each time, you get better. You realize that there is a pattern to the passageways. And that is exactly why your friend remembers it too. Your guesses keep getting better and better with each turn.

However, as the old saying goes, ‘To err is human’. You make a guess, you take a turn and you walk into a wall right in front of you. You realize instantly that you made a wrong move. But at this same time, something very strange and unexpected happens. Your friend leaves your hand and walks away from you. In an instant, you feel deserted. You turn around anxiously. Not sure where to go, and call out your friend’s name. He does not respond. Unsure of what happened, you take a step forward, and behold, your friend was standing right there. You feel weird. You wonder why he did not answer you if he was standing right there. Your whole experience of walking through the tunnel changed. The next time you run into a wall, the same thing happens again. After a while, you get used to it. You know that if you turn back, you will find your friend waiting for you. Eventually, after hitting the walls a few times, you don’t get anxious anymore. You are habituated. But with this, comes the realization that your friend leaves you whenever you make a mistake.

Now consider another situation. You make a guess, take a wrong turn and you hit a wall. This time, instead of leaving your hand, your friend stays with you and whispers a funny little joke in your ear. The first time you chuckle, you make another guess and you know you are on the right path. The next time you run into a wall, your friend repeats the joke again. It isn’t as funny this time, but at least your friend tried. If you run into walls again and again, the frequency of which will reduce over a period of time as you lean the pattern, you may not find the joke amusing anymore. However, at no given point of time will you feel stranded in the darkness. In fact, when you are done traversing the tunnel, the one thing that you will remember about the tunnel is the joke that your friend told you whenever you hit the wall. And that joke will always remind you of the tunnel.

The experience of navigating through a website is not very different. Users come to your site with an objective. They have a need that is satisfied by the product that you deliver. The ‘friend’ in the story is analogous to the user experience designer. As a friend, you always stay with the user and guide him/her throughout the journey of using the website. The wall is analogous to an error page. All you know is that something went wrong. It can either be the user experience designer’s fault or the user’s. The ‘joke’ is the creatively crafted error page that can make your user smile whenever something does not work as expected. By investing time and energy into creating an error page, you are not only improving the quality of user experience but you are also telling your users that you care for them even when they go wrong. You are creating associations in their memory between something funny and your website. Something that they can share with their friends. Something that will help them remember your site/product whenever they see a badly designed error page on another site.

Sometimes, the smallest things can have the largest impact. An error page is one such small thing. So, if you want your users to remember your product beyond the short interactive session that they have with your website, a creative error page is a very powerful tool to have in your arsenal.