Jakob Nielsen wrote a nice set of Error Message Guidelines back in 2001. I think his guidelines still hold up, so let’s see how HTML Dog’s 404 page measures against them.
“Explicit indication that something has gone wrong.”
HTML Dog’s 404 message begins decently enough. “404! Page Not Found!” The exclamation points are a little extra, but at least it puts the relevant info upfront.
Then the screaming begins.
I can easily imagine certain older members of my family legitimately becoming worried if they read “Ahhhh! Panic!” Those words are so unusual and alarming. Accusatory, even. As if to say, “Look at what you’ve done.” People who don’t understand what a 404 message is or how webpages are retrieved over the internet might read something like “The authorities have been notified” and start to wonder if they’ve inadvertently committed some sort of cybercrime. The message declares that someone ought to be “sorry.” It’s all a bit… much.
“Human-readable language, instead of obscure codes or abbreviations”
I think the issue here is that HTML Dog is trying to be too “human-readable.” Normally error messages are indeed full of obscure codes and abbreviations, so kudos to HTML Dog for avoiding impenetrable tech jargon. I might argue, however, that the Justin Bieber reference counts as obscure. Billions of YouTube views aside, “Sorry” is several years old at this point.
“Polite phrasing that doesn’t blame users or imply that they are either stupid or doing something wrong”
“The person responsible will be fired. And cast out into the wilderness,” might be “polite” in the sense that it’s technically talking about someone other than the user, but keep in mind that most visitors will haphazardly scan the words on the page, not start from the beginning. If the words and phrases lingering in one’s mind after a cursory scan include “fired,” “cast out into the wilderness,” “this upsetting circumstance,” “Ahhhh!” and “the authorities have been notified,” that’s not what I would call a pleasant “user experience.”
“Precise descriptions of exact problems, rather than vague generalities”
This 404 message is as precise as it can be. It is true that the site wouldn’t necessarily know the exact reason why the error was returned, so it’s nice that it suggests three possibilities. It’s also helpful that that the most important bits are bolded. That being said, all the extra copy muddies that precision and might even introduce some of the “panic” that it sought to dispel.
“Constructive advice on how to fix the problem.”
HTML Dog is admirable for including a “What Now?” heading on its 404 page. Suggested next steps for the user are often missing from error messages. However, the non-hyperlinked parts of the bullet points are anything but constructive. “References: Refer to stuff,” to take but one example, is neither informative nor funny. And is the bizarre aside about Wikipedia supposed to be a pun about “roofing” because the site is called HTML “Dog”? Who the hell knows, man.
Jakob Nielsen’s guidelines are worth a look if you haven’t read them in full. Error messages are never fun to encounter, but I’d rather read one that calmly explains the problem and suggests next steps than one that tries too hard to be cute.
I had a great time at the virtual World IA Day Toronto 2021 event that took place last Saturday, where I was asked to present a lightning talk about finding an information architecture job in the current market. Since all of the lightning talks were prerecorded, I can easily share with you the video of my ~8 minute presentation. The local WIAD team even manually captioned my video, which is beyond awesome. I can’t wait for next year, but in the meantime you can check out my talk below.
Actions have consequences, no matter what. But the modern day architectures of information in which we carry out many of our day-to-day actions have a tendency to obfuscate and distort our perceptions of those consequences, and indeed even the true nature of the actions themselves.
This morning I watched a CBS News interview of Michael T. van der Veen, impeachment defense lawyer for former President Donald Trump. I encourage you to watch the full interview below.
van der Veen begins the interview by somberly reiterating his lack of disbelief that politicians will say and do anything, including doctor evidence. At around 1:20 in the above clip, van der Veen’s emotion begins to show, as he is faced with his first dismissive comment from anchor Lana Zak.
At around the 2:30 mark in the above clip, Lana Zak responds, “Let’s follow up with the point you’re making right now about the house managers as you say doctoring evidence—”
van der Veen steps in. “They didn’t deny it. I put it in front of them three times.”
“What I’m telling you is that they doctored evidence. And I believe your question says, ‘well it’s only a Twitter check and changing a year of a date here.’ They switched the date of a Twitter a year to try to connect it to this case. That’s not a small thing, ma’am. The other thing they did is they put a check mark on something to make it look like it was a validated account when it wasn’t. And when they were caught, they didn’t say anything about it. They didn’t even try to come up with an excuse about it. And that’s not the way our prosecutors or our government officials should be conducting themselves. And the media shouldn’t be letting them get away with it, either.”
Anyone who is familiar with the “Inspect Element” option on their web browser can tell you how trivial it is to edit the HTML of a webpage, take a screenshot, and then pass off the result as a real historical document. Or to open up Photoshop, prepare an image of an unverified tweet on one layer, open up a PNG of the Twitter verification check mark on another layer, then click and drag the check mark image into place in order to complete the forgery. UX designers create “mockups” of their prototypes and ideas for user interface designs in such a manner all the time. Once you’ve gotten practice, it doesn’t take much effort to create images like this. Click, click, click, drag, click, done. No big deal.
However, when a falsified image is presented before the United States Senate under the guise of evidence, it is a crime. Thank God for brave men such as Michael T. van der Veen, who still have the courage to stand up and speak the truth. It can be taken as evidence of our culture’s ongoing and accelerating slide into what conservative Christian author Rod Dreher dubs “soft totalitarianism” that his brave defense of the truth was unfortunately not without personal, negative consequence to van der Veen and his family. Terrorists tracked down van der Veen’s address and vandalized his home. As the local Philadelphia CBS affiliate reported, “Someone spray-painted ‘traitor’ at the end of the driveway of his Chester County home with an arrow pointed toward the house.”
Committing a crime used to, well, feel like committing a crime. Back before commercial image editing software became ubiquitous, doctoring images would have required, at the very least, “scissors or ink.” The deed could not be done with the same number of clicks as any other trivial action that we do all day on the computer at our regular jobs.
Andrew Hinton, author of the phenomenal book Understanding Context: Environment, Language, and Information Architecture, has demonstrated how a simple change in context can lead to a huge change in behavior. Actions that may have once felt obviously, tangibly wrong now lack the palpable, material feedback that our human bodies perhaps relied upon to inform us of the true nature of our actions.
Hinton illustrated this in a 2013 talk at World Information Architecture Day in Ann Arbor, Michigan. His point was how the design of Twitter scrambles the “ecological information affordance for action.” The difference in actions that a user must take to send a direct message (a private, one-to-one correspondence) versus a regular Tweet (a public, one-to-many correspondence) is subtle and easily confused. The “real-world” equivalent—that is, a person whispering a private message into someone’s ear versus standing in front of an audience with a megaphone—would never be so easily confused. An action that a user would clearly not want to take under normal circumstances in the built environment becomes much less obviously so when the same action takes place in an information environment.
Fortunately for those of us who value truth and facts—wherever they may lead us—this subtle manipulation of user behavior can cut both ways. Just as information environments can lead users to underestimate the ethical severity of their actions, it can also lead those same users to underestimate what they would need to do to “cover up” those actions.
Perhaps the impeachment lawyers believed that because Twitter management had deleted Donald Trump’s Twitter account and erased all of his Tweets from their site that no one would be able to fact-check the lawyers when they presented their doctored evidence. It was this carelessness on their part that, depending on your politics, either disintegrated the integrity of their other arguments or exposed the weakness of their entire case. All I can say is thank God for Archive.org.
Twitter is not the only tech titan whose information architectures obfuscate the true nature of actions that in the built environment would be obviously and tangibly criminal. The climax of the Reddit-GameStop fiasco that took place late last month was when Robinhood, along with several other securities trading platforms, actually removed the “buy” button from their interface in order to manipulate users’ perfectly lawful and reasonable behavior.
In a purely “real-world” environment, wresting control of countless customers’ financial assets away from them—against their will—would entail, for starters, a massive, worldwide information blitz to tens of thousands of workers at banks and other financial institutions. All of these workers would have to be informed (and convinced) why retail investors’ actions that were perfectly legal and acceptable moments previously must now be forcibly prevented at all costs. Next, arguably, these institutions would need to load up on security personnel and other measures as innumerable aggrieved and justifiably irate customers would begin to inundate these institutions with their cries of foul play.
However, in the information environment, all that needs to be done to disenfranchise millions of customers all at once is to highlight the few lines of code that produce the “buy” button, hit backspace, and ask the UX writers to draft some condescending fluff about how they’re keeping users “safe” from their own ignorance and unsophistication.
What we need is a renewed vigilance on our part as inhabitants of information environments. To return to the lessons of Andrew Hinton’s talk, the Venn diagram of “online” and “the room” looks more and more like a circle with each passing day. The resulting danger is that we lose sight of the consequences of actions.
We must not downplay or trivialize, as CBS News anchor Lana Zak and the impeachment team did, actions that take place online or on a screen. Those actions are no less “real” than those that take place offline. A crime is no less criminal whether committing it entails hours with scissors and ink or whether it entails “merely” changing a 1 to a 0. Notice it or not, the consequences are felt. Even if they aren’t felt by you, believe me, they are felt by others.
It’s true. Each clip is equal parts entertaining and enlightening. Dave Ramsey, financial guru, takes phone calls from people facing money problems and offers his simple but direct advice. Many times the caller’s issue is out-of-control debt, but other times it’s something juicier, such as the discovery of a spouse’s secret credit card.
The Dave Ramsey Show gives me enjoyment similar to what I get from watching Dr. Phil, 90 Day Fiancé, or My 600-lb Life. The level of personal drama aired out in the open is about the same as any reality TV drama, but the lessons about personal finance and responsible spending feel much more personally applicable than the lessons from a show about eating dry wall or squeezing cysts.
Fortunately, when I click on a video with a title like “Fiancé Has $200,000 of Debt!!! What Should I Do?” it’s not because I relate to the situation but because I want to get Dave’s take on it. “Beans and rice, rice and beans?” I ask myself aloud when I hear a caller’s story.
After a while, it’s easy to guess how Dave will respond to any caller who calls in with a particularly outrageous debt: sell the car, don’t step foot inside a restaurant unless you work there, and get rid of so much in your house that your kids’ll wonder if they’re next!
One of Dave’s signatures is his response to “Hi Dave, how are you doing?” As if by instinct, Dave always responds, “Better than I deserve.” I always found that odd. Like what, does he think he deserves to do poorly? Perhaps Dave explains his casual self-loathing in one of his bestselling books, wherein I assume he tells the full story of how he became wealthy, lost it all, and then built it back again. I’ve heard all about Total Money Makeover and Financial Peace, but I prefer to receive Dave’s wisdom while he lays into some poor caller who bought yet another truck he couldn’t afford. “You’d better get your freaking butt in gear, mister!”
Dave Ramsey represents an ever-dwindling number of onscreen, Evangelical boomers who can still be counted on to give generally sound—but more importantly, self-assured—financial and ethical advice. Cut up your credit cards, avoid debt as much as possible, don’t trust that the government will ever adequately meet your needs… Dave’s advice is far from mainstream, as he would surely be the first to admit.
I have to respectfully disagree with Dave’s take on bitcoin (“internet funny money”); from listening to the way he speaks of it and other cryptocurrencies, it’s my opinion, at least, that he doesn’t understand it. That’s fine—Dave understands other commonsense things that surprisingly few others seem to, such as the importance of living below one’s means or getting married before buying a house with your partner.
Dave’s admittedly one-size-fits-all “7 baby steps” method for eliminating debt would probably not be the first choice of a well-credentialed, capital-E “Expert” who might (perhaps even correctly) point out that mathematically it makes more sense to pay off the highest-interest debt first, rather than simply the debt with the smallest balance. But what Dave’s advice might lack in 100% optimized quantitative rigor, it more than makes up for in down-to-Earth, good old fashioned common sense. Even the Harvard Business Review had to concede that clearing off debts, no matter how small they are at first, has a noticeable effect on motivating someone to continue paying back what they owe.
Whenever one of Dave’s fatherly tongue-lashings risks becoming too demoralizing, he’ll interject with a chuckle or an assurance along the lines of “I’m only doing this because I want you to win.” No one is told their life is over. No one is denied their humanity. There are no “stupid people,” only “people who did stupid things.” It’s a message of redemption, decency, and hope.