Dialogue Boxes and Error Messages: Paying Attention to the Little Things

Ashley McKee

June 15th, 2007

I just read a post by Leisa Reichelt, where she describes an unpleasant experience she had a with a dialogue box that popped up on her Mac.

…It’s asking me a question ‘do you want to allow the new version to access the same keychain items (such as passwords) as the previous version?’.

Is it just me, or are the obvious answers to this question either Yes, or No. Yet this dialog box presents me with the options ‘Don’t Change’ or ‘Change All’. To which my immediate response is… Change What?! I have no idea what you’re talking about.

Let’s ignore the fact that, hypothetically, I have pretty much no idea of what a keychain item might be, the next line of text reassuringly tells me that whatever option I end up guessing at is permanent and affects all keychain items used by Adium…

Leisa goes on to point out that these types of messages have the potential to cause users to quit the application, and move on to a different application that proves to be less daunting.

This post reminded me of Jared’s recent business trip in Norway, where he encountered a serious error message displayed on a ticketing window when trying to move from the train he was travelling on to the airport. The error message showed up turned on its side, and didn’t contain any useful information for the average person. Missing little details on operations that carry some importance to people (such as getting your boarding ticket), can cause huge amounts of frustration and wasted time for your users, not to mention the employees who have to deal with the errors and complaints.


You can read Leisa’s entire post here: Dialog Boxes — Making simple things simple…

2 Responses to “Dialogue Boxes and Error Messages: Paying Attention to the Little Things”

  1. Daniel Szuc Says:

    If the only channel available is a kiosk or you are relying heavily on that channel because you prefer self serve (long lines etc) – it can be even more frustrating!

  2. Yan Says:

    That message (on the macs) has always struck me as highly cryptic. For the most part macs make the smart choice of ‘sensible defaults’. Compared to windows the number of dialogs when installing software, etc is almost next to nothing. But for something like this – the average user has absolutely no idea what the dialog is asking.

    The problem is not that the dialog should be yes/no. The problem is that the dialog should not exist at all. If I fire up an application that needs a new format for the keys, quite simply the keys should be transformed to the new format and a backup should be kept without asking me. If for some reason I fire up an old application it can read the keys from backup. I hope this change is made in leopard. This is one case where the mac fails to follow the philosophy of simply making a reasonable assumption and offering undo capabilities over popping up a dialog box.

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