Oops! I ruined your life. :)

It was one of those, “please, please, let this send,” kind of moments when you hope a weak airport WiFi connection doesn’t disconnect, a low-battery indicator doesn’t shut down your laptop — who knows where there’s an outlet in this airport — and your email actually sends to your million dollar client when the message popped up and your stomach drops: “Oops!”

oops

Like some kind of creepy, American Psycho moment, a hardly-discernible, non-apologetic message from Gmail put this exact dagger into my heart and sent me wondering what went wrong.

Sure, of course, just lemme look up error #001. What?

Google’s Chrome browser gives off an even worse error message that doesn’t make things better, just a wanna-be-hipster-piece-of-software knocking off a Susan Kare classic laughing in your face when you’re frustrated:

aw, snap!

Maybe this is part of some awful brand initiative. After all, Google is a place of smiles. An every-color-of-the-rainbow logo, and three square meals place to work with unbelievable benefits. But, then again, Google is hardly alone in this kind of “smile when you’ve fallen” approach to error messages.

Microsoft is sadly considering implementing the same, cutesy thinking in a revamp of their blue screen of death as a part of their otherwise exciting, new Windows 8 operating system:

Windows 8 blue screen of death

(windows.staenz.com)

Oh, great. My 14 year-old cousin is writing error messages in Redmond.

Fortunately, Microsoft offers some advice. Just search for the error message, “HAL_INITIALIZATION_FAILED”…oh wait, this is the blue screen of death. My computer is totally effed.

Not to be oops-outdone by Google, Microsoft’s XBox website includes the word, “Oops!” twice in an error message, first in the header and then as the first word to explain the header. Obviously, after frustrating someone, the best thing to do is say “Oops!” over and over again.

Oops! Oops

Sure, I’ll “like” that page.

And if you thought the non-profit Mozilla Foundation avoided this kind of creepy, cutesy error messaging in their Firefox browser, you thought wrong.

Legoman

The legoman is sorry that you can’t load your favorite TV show.

In times like this, there’s always YouTube, right? Millions of fun videos to help us laugh at times of stress.

Youtube is sorry

Facebook?

Faceboops

(Downtime Blog)

Grab some music off my Apple iCloud?

iCloud cute

(MacRumors)

Check my Twitter feed?

Fail Whale

Is there no escape from this cute hell‽

The hip company Plaxo — your address book for life — has not only embraced the “oops” but entered another level of creepy. Shhh…this error is just “our little secret.”

Plaxo creepy oops

(Dfbills)

What’s happening?

You know, not too long ago, whenever something in software was confusing to users, software-makers had a brilliant, can’t fail, simple solution: add a how-to in the help section. Instead of spending hours making strange features straightforward, software companies passed the buck to the user: “Um, we can’t figure out how to make it easy to do, so just read the manual.”

Now it seems like there is another, new kind of awful simple solution for glitches and errors that infuriate people: a cutesy smiley face. After all, no one cares if you ruin their life as long as you do it with a smile, right?

American Pyscho

(spinoff.comicbookresources.com)

The root of Oops!

In 1925, a New Yorker cartoon caption is credited with being the first published instance of “Whoopsie Daisy!” But the real root of the “oops” phenomenon in software might be pointed to the Linux operating system.

Linux pengiun

(Linux-mag)

This is your fault, Penguin. Please stop looking at me like that.

Upon “a bug in the kernel” Linux kicks back an OOPS error message. First developed in 1991, Linux’s code for error messages may have crept into the developer’s subconscious eventually leading to today’s proliferation of “oops.” Here’s an example:

  Unable to handle kernel paging request at virtual address 211e2018
c0129577
*pde = 00000000
Oops: 0000
CPU: 0
EIP: 0010:[<c0129577>] Not tainted
Using defaults from ksymoops -t elf32-i386 -a i386
EFLAGS: 00010083
eax: d7ee5000 ebx: b420e080 ecx: c164e000 edx: c1615d04
esi: c16073d0 edi: 00000246 ebp: 000001f0 esp: d7c5de84
ds: 0018 es: 0018 ss: 0018
Process mount (pid: 25, stackpage=d7c5d000)
Stack: 00000000 c0309c00 000001f0 00000000 c01fadb7 c16073d0 000001f0 c1615a40
c1615700 c1615a40 c01fa126 00000001 000001f0 00000000 c022f793 c1615a40
00000001 00000000 000001f0 d7b6fde0 d7c5df14 0000006e bfffec0c 00000018
Call Trace: [<c01fadb7>] [<c01fa126>] [<c022f793>] [<c01f8acb>] [<c01f8720>]
[<c01f9450>] [<c0106d40>] [<c0106c4f>]
Code: 8b 44 81 18 89 41 14 83 f8 ff 75 1d 8b 41 04 8b 11 89 42 04

(If you’re curious about all the hex, an explanation is available from madwifi.)

When cute works

Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing wrong with cute.

Cute!!!

(Cute overload)

Cute works well when you expect nothing from something. Like, babies.

LOL, he pooped his pants!
Awww, he farted!
Haha, he just puked on me!

But cute doesn’t work when you have expectations. Like, with adults.

Please, use the toilet…and the toilet paper.
Ohmygawd, that smells awful!
Do you need to go home?

So when a company like Google was still young, hip and start-upy, their error messages were indeed cute. Those silly Nooglers!

Google Reader OoopS!

(Geekrant)

How fresh!

But now that they are a publicly traded, 186 billion dollar company that we rely on for important business communications, which could make or break jobs, their cute error messages are about as cute as a Bill Gates tossing floppy disks. In other words, just plain creepy.

Isn't he just cuuute?

(Snopes)

Whaaa? You don’t find Mr. Gates cute?

Turn it down from 11

The language of error messages in old software like MS-DOS were notoriously unfriendly.

MSDOS

Oh yeah, duh, ff0a8e6c shouldn’t have been pointing to HAL.DLL!

So, people who care about user experience have provided guidance. So, so many articles about writing good error messaging have been written over the past three decades. Here’s one. Here’s another. And another. And another. And another. And another from Yahoo! writers. Another, equating error messages to lost revenue. Another, on 404s

But today’s insulting cutesy error message writers have swung the pendulum too far. A common recommendation to use natural language to turn an incomprehensible “Error: Stack Overflow” has not turned into something polite and understandable, but instead an insulting “Oops! Aw, snap!”

What we need to do is dial it down from 11 on the friendly meter…11 is just too creepy. There is a happy middle ground where developers can apologize and software can provide the user polite guidance about what to do next. Website, app, software, you screwed up; help the user get their desired task completed ASAP.

To paraphrase Jon Stewart, oops is not the four letter word I would have chosen.

(The Daily Show) For the impatient, start at 6:52

Related posts


39 Comments

D. Lambert
Ok, so if I'm following your drift, there's around a dozen error messages here you don't like very much. Is there anyone doing something you'd recommend people emulate? Remeber, when these erorr messages occur, something bad has already happened, so the messenger in these cases is usually just trying to delive the news without being shot. The engineering work needed to keep these messages from showing up in the first place is another discussion altogether.
Petar Subotic
Here's one by flickr I thought was brilliant: First and foremost, explain to the user, what went wrong, how it happened, how is it being solved ( . . . ) http://blog.flickr.net/en/2006/07/19/temporary-storage-glitch/ And then benefit from the error by doing something creative and unique that all those "cutsies" above are aiming at: http://imageshack.us/photo/my-images/815/clogged.jpg/ http://www.flickr.com/photos/14922438@N00/194463892/ http://www.flickr.com/photos/41225983@N00/193706751/
Petar Subotic
While on the topic, you should really do something regarding your own site's errors: http://imageshack.us/photo/my-images/191/coopercomment.jpg/
Golden Krishna
@D. Lambert: Yes, I linked to a few really good articles about writing good error-messages towards the end. They definitely have some good examples to emulate. To save you a little time scrolling, here's one of the good articles: http://www.uxmatters.com/mt/archives/2010/08/avoid-being-embarrassed-by-your-error-messages.php @Petar: Thank you! I'll send that to our web team right away.
Corin
In Australia the region locked daily show clip gives the very dry and succinct message: 'Unavailable video'
Saz
HAL is the Hardware Abstraction Layer. It probably means you're totally boned. That, or you didn't use sysprep before making an image-based backup and then you tried to restore it to totally different hardware, so the system no longer has any clue how to control the computer. But unless you did that, yeah, your install and/or hardware is probably just boned.
Egypt Urnash
>It was one of those, “please, please, let this send,” kind of moments [...] to your million dollar client when the message popped up and your stomach drops: “Oops!” I do hope that you, like, picked up your phone and CALLED your million-dollar client if it was so crazy-important that it couldn't wait until you found an outlet. I mean, seriously, I basically assume I'm gonna get NOTHING done if I'm flying.
Jacob
I too don't see what you want the world to do. Being friendly and cute in a world where SHIT HAPPENS and THINGS BREAK is totally acceptable. If you want things to work 100% of the time, don't use the internet. And I like the line underneath this comment box: "We're trying to advance the conversation, and we trust that you will, too. We'd rather not moderate, but we will remove any comments that are blatantly inflammatory or inappropriate. Let it fly, but keep it clean. Thanks." A little hypocritical, I believe..... you're using the same type of friendly lingo you are bashing to be unnecessary.
Paul
@Jacob, you don't get it. Of course, things will go wrong from time to time, and of course there is no reason to be rude in such cases, or to give a memory dump or some other practically useless technical information. However, the problem is with trying to candy coat things, with pretending that giving a maudlin, demonstratively hip error message somehow mitigates things and makes everything fine if a saccharine sweetness is layered on top of a bad thing. (A lot of people in California seem to have this disease.) It doesn't. It doesn't change a thing about the event, and it's childish and hypocritical to try to dress it up as a nice cutesy event. Most of us don't think we need to have our software designed by Fischer-Price. We're grownups, just give it to us straight, the way it is; don't treat us like spoiled 4 year olds. In reality, this sort of thing not friendliness at all, but rather a weak attempt at differentiating the producer from faceless corporate giants, an attempt to say, "hey, we're not guys in suits in a cube farm somewhere, we're ordinary cool young hip people just like you!" (As this technique has now been detected and appropriated by Microsoft itself, hopefully it will die soon.) As for the line underneath the comment box, you apparently didn't understand it at all. It's very straightforward and to the point, neither overly twee nor overly brusque, and in no way hypocritical. I appreciate that sort of directness.
Markus
Hear hear But some of the messages seem OK - icloud, youtube and twitter are rather direct even though some icons could be changed. Thanks for the links to "good" errorhandling.
mda
"But the real root of the “oops” phenomenon in software might be pointed to the Linux operating system." No - must be older - The Akai S900 sampler in the late '80s had "oops" error messages.
Dennis
Oh, the irony: http://i.imgur.com/va77f.png
BobD
I thought HAL was in reference to "2001 A Space Odyssey" ... just adding to the creepiness. Anyway, this was a fabulous piece ... thanks for posting.
Max Howell
All these error messages are for edge case conditions. Anyone who spends a lot of time on the messages for edge cases is wasting time they should be spending messaging well more common errors. Error handling is hard, and massively time consuming to do well. You are advocating people waste their time. Your argument that this is what happens when users are treated like babies is weird. If the two quick options for this kind of error are, show an oops, or show a stack trace, and all other options are too much work, the first is correct, unless you want to scare your users. In which case good luck with that.
David Travis
I'm surprised -- and a little concerned -- that most of the commentators on this article seem to be missing the point. This 'dumbing down' of error messages where systems treat you like an idiot is endemic on the web. Cute 404 pages are a good example of this trend: cutesie 404s have become so prevalent that with many of them it takes a while to even realise that a problem has happened. Treating people like they are stupid is not the same as making stuff easy to use. If most of the commentators on this article aren't bothered by the trend, then maybe we're in a race to the bottom. Which is a bit like using 'Big Brother' as a standard for TV excellence.
dude
hmm... who cares? this is a waste of time
Regnard Raquedan
This post is clearly a rant about "cute" error messages. So websites want to inject humor in a potentially stressful situation. What's wrong about that? If they are acceptable to the target users, I think there shouldn't be a problem. And if these error messages can educate and defuse an irate user at the same time, then give me cute error messages.
Golden Krishna
@dude: It's a good idea to treat the people we design software for with respect. They are our customers. @Regnard: If you're able to make an interface that's fun to use, maybe even cute at times, I think that's actually a huge accomplishment. There's so much software out there -- web, mobile, desktop -- that make daily tasks feel like chores. But when things go wrong in a major operating system, like the Windows 8 example I showed above, I don't think showing a cutesy frowny face is acceptable to the target audience of business professionals that use it everyday for things important to their job. I don't think it would "defuse an irate user" but rather make them feel as though the people that made the software didn't take seriously the people that use the software. Imagine if someone crashed into your car, got out, and said "oops!" I don't think cute is a good way to defuse the situation. @mda: Wow! Great memory. A link for the rest of us: http://www.gearslutz.com/board/rap-hip-hop-engineering-production/265332-question-about-akai-s900-those-who-know.html @markus: Agreed. Sometimes the illustration is a bigger problem than the language.
Doug LeMoine
@max says, "All these error messages are for edge case conditions." ... If I understand the author's point correctly, the frequency of the error isn't the problem. All of us expect that errors will happen when we use digital products. The problem is, when products fail (as they most certainly will from time to time), the messaging is often cutesy and cheeky. And this cheekiness doesn't soften the blow of the failure, it makes it worse. "Oops, I just hosed all that work you've been doing ... ;-]" ... I mean, does anyone really like being sarcastically patronized when a product fails?
Golden Krishna
FYI, the discussion of this article on Twitter: https://twitter.com/#!/search/realtime/http%3A%2F%2Fwww.cooper.com%2Fjournal%2F2012%2F01%2Foops_i_ruined_your_life.html ...and two great tweets: https://twitter.com/#!/dkardys/status/160459452150059008 https://twitter.com/#!/garthk/status/160474009744580608
Jordan Gray
It looks like those of us in the UK can't see the video, so I guess the obvious way to fix this problem is… Um… Move to the US? :)
Darren Hood
This post reminds me of how important it is to present error messages that help users recover from this state — something too often overlooked. Thanks for sharing.
Carla Saraiva
I really enjoyed your article! It's interesting, refreshing and very, very funny as well. :) I was surprised though, that you didn't mention the tired hamster error message from a famous torrent search engine - the one with a picture of a super cute hamster, accompanied by the message "Our hamster powered servers are too busy and begging for few seconds of rest". I have to admit it's one of my all-time favourites! It always managed to put a big smile on my face whenever I saw it. I suppose that this message falls into the "babies category" you mentioned, since it does not refer to a critical, big frustrating error/problem and, besides, it usually got resolved within seconds (at least in my experience). I don't know, but it really did make me smile! :)
Neil
Granted, the 'sshhh this is our secret' example is pretty creepy, but this strikes me as just a rant because you tried and failed to send an email? Oh no twitter is over capacity and there is a picture of whale, I'm so INSULTED.
Dan
Can you suggest an error that you think is helpful enough - i.e. has the right balance between 'friendly' and 'useful'. I think the XBox error message above is fine. You're right that it shouldn't have the Facebook like button on it, but I'm sure that's because it's being pulled in from a template and therefore a different problem. Most of these are catchall errors - i.e. shown when no other more specific error is available. For example, the Facebook error is shown when there are problems. However, if you try logging in with the wrong password, you get a different error. Sure, error handling can and will be improved with time, but I don't see how making computers more friendly to look at is a mistake.
Jamie Kravitz
Fun read - I blogged on pretty much the exact same topic a couple of years back - see http://digivitz.com/blog/?p=83 my summary guideline: error messages should still try to help the user accomplish their task successfully, not just make them feel okay about failing.
Golden Krishna
@Jamie: Thanks! And, yes! I admire your foresight. I do my best to find any articles that have been written about anything I'm writing about, and at least link to those articles, but in this case I missed you great work. I like what you wrote here: "These newfangled error messages seem to add a new twist: make it seem like the error is not important. By using the super-casual language - things like “oops” and “something bad happened” it implies that it’s not really a big deal that you were not able to accomplish what you were trying to do." Nice work.
Phillip Remaker
Semantic Nitpick: The word-dense blue-screen you show is actually from Windows NT, not MS-DOS. MS-DOS had no error messages that would fill up a whole screen. It would either belch out an indecipherable error number of unceremoniously hang. Even older systems could "snow crash" where misdirected data written into video memory would scramble the screen contents before the system hung hard. And in unrelated news, for your retro-ui amusement: http://www.therestartpage.com/
Deanna Carey
Has anyone done any actual research on how end users respond to such error messages? I think there is logic on both sides of the argument--seems like a perfect opportunity to do a study.
Golden Krishna
@Neil: It's all about what's appropriate where. For example, the sarcasm in your own comment some might feel is an appropriate method of criticism here, but few would probably feel it would be appropriate somewhere more formal, like a Presidential Debate. @Dan: Think of a good error message as speaking in natural language appropriate in tone for the task, including what the user did to cause the error message (so they can avoid it from happening again), and helping them achieve the thing that they wanted to do. The principles to writing a great error message have been written about often; I linked to 8 great articles in the post that are robust, and I hope you'll find them useful. @Phillip: Thanks for the catch. Also, amazing link! My favorite is The Workbench restart with the floppy drive noises. @Deanna: I think researching choosing what words to say can be difficult. I think of it more of an art than a science, but I certainly welcome any attempts. I know of no studies around the subject.
Skot Nelson
I use Chrome at the office almost exclusively and that particular error message spent about a week making my life very unpleasant. It got annoying in about a day, and every occurrence after that ended with me telling my computer that I'd rather they stopped being cute and just made the damn thing work. Computer didn't listen, naturally. Every time I see that screen I hate google more and more...and that's saying something, considering the level of disdain I already have for them.
Rogier
“Sorry, this video is unavailable from your location” — Embedded video at the end of the article :)
Pharme420
Hello! gfbgaee interesting gfbgaee site! I'm really like it! Very, very gfbgaee good!
Pharma119
Very nice site!
Pharmc183
Hello! gddadac interesting gddadac site! I'm really like it! Very, very gddadac good!
Emotional design and expressive interfaces | Interaction Design Logbook
[...] —Golden Krishna (source) [...]
A Definitive Guide to Sensible Form Validations
[...] Here is a whole post saying that Oops is cute as hell to live with: Oops! I ruined your life. [...]
outlet--northface
I do not know if it's just me or if perhaps everyone else experiencing problems with your blog. It appears like some of the written text in your content are running off the screen. Can somebody else please comment and let me know if this is happening to them as well? This may be a issue with my web browser because I've had this happen before. Cheers outlet--northface http://www.outlet--northface.com

Post a comment

We’re trying to advance the conversation, and we trust that you will, too. We’d rather not moderate, but we will remove any comments that are blatantly inflammatory or inappropriate. Let it fly, but keep it clean. Thanks.

Post this comment