inessential by Brent Simmons

Error Messages

I can’t find a note specifically about error messages in either the iOS or Macintosh Human Interface Guidelines. (Maybe I just missed it.)

There is, however, old wisdom — perhaps from an earlier version of the Mac HIG — that says how to create error messages: they should be of the form “Can’t x because of y.”

They may optionally include additional detail and/or recovery steps. “Can’t x because of y. Something is true. Try a thing.”

(Best case is when there’s a button that lets you try that thing without having to do it manually.)

A similar form is this: “Noun can’t x because y.” (As in “‘’ can’t be opened because it is from an unidentified developer.”)

One thing error messages never say is sorry. They’re just reporting, and they respect you enough to know you want the facts, clearly expressed, and don’t need to be apologized-to by a machine.

Also: they rarely (if ever) use the words I, me, my, you, and your.

HAL 9000, were it a Mac, would report: “Can’t open the pod bay door because this mission can’t be jeopardized.” Or: “The door ‘Pod Bay’ can’t be opened because it would jeopardize this mission. Try the emergency airlock.”

I think it’s worth keeping this in mind when writing error messages, but also note that there may be some exceptions. I haven’t thought it all the way through, but a couple things come to mind.

  • Form-field validation errors. I think you want something succinct next to the field rather than a full “Can’t submit this form because blah” error.

  • iOS and space constraints. There may not be enough room for a classic error message. Of course, this may mean that the design should be revised until there is room — but that may mean a worse trade-off.