Fix Error Messages Or Make Them Work For You

Error messages may run havoc on your customer engagement strategy whether you are running an ecommerce site or launching online promotions. You can lose leads and sales easily if you do not account for them. You can also try to improve your site performance or promotions’ numbers if you plan for the event of errors in advance. Or you can find ways to make them work for you by closely watching their occurrence and customer behavior that follows. 

There are 3 approaches that you can take to alleviate error message/sale loss ratio for your business:

1) Make user-induced error messages based on business rules clear and self-explanatory. Even if your audience is tech savvy and mostly has a high percentage of engineering degrees, error messages stating “Generic Error 407. Must be 77888888″ can puzzle anyone. Try to explain the reason of this message in a human language and communicate it succinctly. In all events, “Your account information and password do not match our records. Please do…[whatever you want them to do]..” sounds better than a numeric code that only a math genius in “Numbers” TV show can solve. Sometimes, I think those error messages were hastily cut and pasted by programming folks versus a UI/UX professional.  No offense to either, but the saved costs on making sure your error messages are clear in your application or on your site – are basically passed to future sales onto the customer base. 

Also, consider the context in which your customers will be incurring them: their attention span, possible stage of buying process, etc. One example of this error type, is an online shopper filling out a shipping address and payment information to only find out the error at the end after submitting the ” erroneous form” and having to retype all info again. I know I would give up at that point. Thus, construct your forms and functional errors accordingly – by making them appear inline with the filling out process, or adding interactive elements when possible. Linda Bustos, has a great post on inline validation within the shopping carts. Luke Wroblewski shared his insights on the same topic on his blog and even published a book.

2) Save the sale by tracking to who your errors were exposed to and follow up with compensation. You might not only save a customer, but delight him/her with a special attention that is capable to turn them into your product/brand evangelists. This happened to me a month ago. DSW ran an online promotion “Get Lucky. Participate in a draw of XYZ and win 50% off your next purchase by visiting this promo page.”  With sheer excitement, my mouse rushed to click on the link and the error message occurred “Site is unavailable” to my utter discouragement and quickly vanishing anticipation to make a purchase. But! DSW email marketing folks appeared to have planned for this contingency. After 2 days, I got a follow up email stating” Our apologies and $10 off. How lucky can you get if the site is down?” I was pleasantly surprised as a customer! My clicking the promo was acknowledged, my shopping decision was saved as if it were in a real store. I was happy to continue shopping at DSW and share the story with my friends. So, follow the DSW example of using web analytics to track your potential errors, especially if you know the limitations of your systems. Bravo, DSW!

3) Collect free feedback from the unpredicted error messages or 404, 500 types. Sometimes, it is what it is and you might not know all possible scenarios when your site or application starts “misbehaving”. Instead of simply accepting this reality, try to add a feedback link or box to the generic error page and your customers might feel compelled to share what happened. That way you will start discovering the reasons and causes of those mishaps. You will also make your customers feel listened to, heard and valued.  And, of course, you will actually gain something from those error messages. They will pay you with feedback! 

“Mistakes, obviously, show us what needs improving. Without mistakes, how would we know what we had to work on?” -Peter McWilliams.  So, do not fret if you find a few in your current app. Look at the ways to make them work for you and be the one with “an unequalled gift…of squeezing big mistakes into small opportunities,” Henry James.