June 14, 2016

Error messages that one can't dechiper

There has been a lot of activity from my side lately, and I have been setting up accounts and working on webdesigns - quite a lot of fun, once upon a time that's where it all started, and I love to be back.

A street sign saying "slow children"
However, the whole setting up accounts and working with designs raises a lot of usability - well, not concerns, but awareness and thoughts. I want a site, or an app, or whatever it may be, to be as usable as possible, and one of the things I am looking for is error messages and general feedback to the user.

One of the most frustrating things for me personally when I try and set up an account or change an existing account is getting an error messages that I cannot decipher - and there has been a lot of that lately.

Creating a password an I am getting
"Password must contain [xx] number of characters and must contain both numbers and special characters
despite the fact that I already have all those covered - it turned out that I had used the WRONG special characters; There was a limited set of special character I could use. That's fine, I understand that from a coding perspective, but TELL the users which special characters he/she can include! Same goes for letters from foreign alphabets. If the letters have to be from the German or English subset, just make it clear. 

For another account, I had this message popping up:
"Your password cannot include your name or user-ID". 
I stared at the account, retyped the password, but got the same message when I tried to save. Took a while to figure that one out, turned out all my special characters were wrong, once I had replaced them, and changed the length of the password it worked - mine was too long.  

In yet another system I tried changing the special characters, took a while until I understood that the error message
Password must contain [xx] number of characters and must contain both numbers and special characters. Password must be minimum 6 characters long
meant Password must be exactly 6 characters long (even more scary? The error message came from an institution that specialises in IT and security is part of that. Exactly 6 character long passwords? Way to go. )

Of course there are also all the sites that only allow you to use letters and numbers, letters only, the ones that save passwords in clear text - yes, they still exist, especially common in travel sites and recruitment sites, I found, although it has gotten a lot better the last two years (said June 2016) - but that is a different issue. My discussion (rant?) today is just about error messages that have nothing to do with the actual text.

My point being: When users keep getting error messages that doesn't actually tell them anything this often leads to one of these two things:
  • User abandons the account creation - meaning lost business for you
  • User gives up and picks a simple password that can be very easily cracked - the name of his children, his dog, and so forth. 
Jacob Nielsen, a leading name in usability research, wrote an article 2001, about error messages and much of what he wrote then is still true - see link. I especially like this piece of advice:
The very worst error messages are those that don't exist. When users make mistakes and get no feedback, they're completely lost.
And then there is the advice against just colour coding an error message. Colour coding may help support the message, but never ever let that be the sole respons, which connects back to accessibility - how will a colour blind person, for example, see what they did wrong, so they can move forward? 

In an ideal world the design should be so good that a user never makes a mistake in the first place, however we don't really live in an ideal world, so guide the users as best as you can.

That is my usability tip of the day/week. 

And if you don't want to deal with it - well, there are a whole bunch of good ways around it, like implementing login via social media, using for example Firebase user authentification - but THAT, that is a whole different discussion which will need to be saved for another day. The usability road is long and there are quite a few challenges... 


1 comment :

Mike Fagan said...

Regarding passwords...

https://xkcd.com/936/