How to make a useful error page

Have you ever been on a website when something goes wrong? It’s not always clear what’s gone on, or what you can do to get back on track. What’s a 404 or a 500?! You might know this as a developer or web designer, but does the average Joe?

Error numbers are for developers

As the owner of a website you want to know what went wrong when or if it does and that’s why error numbers were created. But we build websites for users and not developers (except sites like this…), so the error numbers aren’t the key message that needs to be shown.

Guide a user via a good error pages

When a user visits a web page the most important thing is to give them the information that they need quickly and presented in a good way. The problem with a lot of error pages is that they treat users like robots and not as humans.

Disarm

Imagine you go into a hotel where you have a room booked. If the reception says, sorry your room has been double booked and you now have now room you would understandably be annoyed and confused. This is the same for an error on a webpage. When a user hits an error page they are instantly jarred into a mood of confusion – “Did I do something wrong?”, “What’s happened?”, “Where’s the information I was looking for?”.

Inform

What needs to happen at this point is a very quick disarming of the confused state. As per my hotel example, you know good customer service when they admit fault. ” We are very sorry, but due to a booking error your room was double booked” or “Because of a wedding party your room booked room been moved, we’re very sorry for the change”. Applying this to a webpage error we can say things like “Our site had a server error. We’re fixing this right now” or “The content you we’re looking for was moved because it’s now part of a different section of the site.”. This admits a fault on the part of the website and not the user and tells them what happened.

Redirect

The next step is to make sure that the user can try to get back on track and try and get the content they were already looking for.  With a hotel you would expect a good host to give you a equal or better option – “We’ve arranged another room and also discounted your first night” or “We’ve upgraded your room to a deluxe suite with a sea view”.  And back with a website error – “Here are some similar pages where you can the information you we’re looking for…” or “Here is the link you we’re looking for… and here is the follow up article to it”.

What an error page shouldn’t be

When something goes wrong it can be nice to show something that’s a bonus or funny. There are countless websites that have funny error pages and these can even go viral because they are that entertaining, but we need to make sure that before we start to distract our users with some fun, we give them the knowledge and ways to move forward.

In conclusion

These are obviously just examples and in the real world it’ll be specific to your site. In an ideal world we should be having no errors, but sometimes they can be unavoidable so the above is necessary.

If we make sure that error messages are reduced to a minimum by testing and fixing issues as much possible, then we’re off to a good start.  We then help our users as much as possible by giving them what they need to move forward and only then are we’re doing the most we can for them.

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