Set the right tone

The tone of your error messages can have a significant effect on how your users interpret them.

Be positive

Instead of telling the user what they did wrong, tell the user how to get it right.

Not recommended

You didn't enter a name.


Enter a name.

Not recommended

You entered an invalid postal code.


Enter a valid postal code. [Explanation of valid postal code.]

Not recommended

ANSI C++ forbids declaration 'ostream' with no type 'ostream'.


ANSI C++ requires a type for declaration 'ostream' with type 'ostream'.

Don't be overly apologetic

While maintaining positivity, avoid the words "sorry" or "please." Focus instead on clearly describing the problem and solution.

Not recommended

We're sorry, a server error occurred and we're temporarily unable to load your spreadsheet. We apologize for the inconvenience. Please wait a while and try again.


Google Docs is temporarily unable to open your spreadsheet. In the meantime, try right-clicking the spreadsheet in the doc list to download it.

Avoid humor

Don't attempt to make error messages humorous. Humor in error messages can fail for the following reasons:

  • Errors frustrate users. Angry users are generally not receptive to humor.
  • Users can misinterpret humor. (Jokes don't always cross borders well.)
  • Humor can detract from the goal of the error message.

Not recommended

Is the server running? Better go catch it :D.


The server is temporarily unavailable. Try again in a few minutes.

Don't blame the user

If possible, focus the error message on what went wrong rather than assigning blame.

Not recommended

You specified a printer that's offline.


The specified printer is offline.

Multiple choice exercise

Which of the following error messages do not use the appropriate tone?

  1. Sorry, you are not allowed to leave feedback.
  2. You entered an invalid title for your item.
  3. 404 Error. Oops, that is embarrassing.

1, 2, and 3.

All of these errors are inappropriate.


1 is inappropriate, but that's not all.


2 is inappropriate, but that's not all.


3 is inappropriate, but that's not all.

Next unit: Want to play a game?