As a company, we aim
to give online businesses greater visibility into what their customers actually
see and experience online.

And time and time again we see companies shocked by
the fact that, often, their websites just aren’t designed with their customer
in mind!

Some of the best examples of this are site error messages. Here are some of the more bizarre error messages I’ve seen over the years:

  • [Exception in:/refund/spage/mainconfirmrefund.jsp] null
  • Service Unavailable – Zero size object reference #15.36a21645.125511894.ffeab82
  • A system fault has occurred. Mutliple attempts have been made to access the same process
  • We’re Sorry… has not properly responded to your request.
  • You can use your browser’s back button and resubmit your request now. In many cases, this second attempt will be executed fully. Or, you can try again in a few minutes.
  • If the problem persists, please contact XXXX and provide PROBLEM CODE Reference No : null-24-16072007-41297 
  •  Description: An unhandled exception occurred during the execution of the current web request. Please review the stack trace for more information about the error and where it originated in the code.
  • Exception Details: System.Data.Odbc.OdbcException: ERROR [HYT00] [Microsoft][ODBC SQL Server Driver]Timeout expired

If you don’t have a techy background, these will all read like total gobbledygook, but they crop up over and over again. How many websites still generate error pages with ‘404 ERROR’ emblazoned at the top? What does this mean to a customer? What message does it send?

Based our experience over the years, when website visitors see unintelligible error messages like this, they simply abandon and, to be honest, I don’t blame them!

Understanding and aiding the customer experience

There is a fundamental customer experience issue here. Giving visitors clear and easy to understand instructions is surely usability 101.

If, for example, you want customers to fill in a form, you have to make it very clear. This means identifying which fields are mandatory and which are not. And if you need customers to go back and add information they forgot to fill in, you must make it clear where they went wrong and the steps they can take to rectify the situation.

One specific example comes to mind: the customer had neglected to fill in their first name and surname in separate fields so the website displayed the following message: “Invalid Operator in Field”. How confusing is that?

Write your sites (and error messages) for human beings

The problem is that many of these error messages are coded by IT into underlying ecommerce platforms and content management systems. Marketing never sees them. And they just never get changed.

So, have a think about how your site serves up error messages and ask yourself whether they were written by the IT department or by marketing.

If a customer is served up an error message, whether it was their fault or not, it is worth helping them if possible. Otherwise they’ll just go elsewhere and may never come back!