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The Human Factor

When you walk into any sporting goods store and have a question about the backpack you purchased, you expect to be treated with respect. You want the salespeople to talk to you at your level, deal with your issues, and in a polite and fair way do everything in their power to resolve your problem. Software or Web users are no different. They expect to be treated with respect and to get quality service. The customer, or in this case the user, is always right.

We make a critical mistake when we think of error messages as user errors instead of developer errors. If the user is trying to purchase something from a Web site, and there is a problem with the server database, whose fault is it, really? It's our fault. We weren't smart enough to ensure that the user would never encounter this problem. Either the project manager and designer failed to create the right interface design, or the development and test teams failed to find an important defect in how the system works. Web site error messages are just as bad, if not worse, than the ones found in software. When an error occurs in our products, we are like the service person at the REI counter. Do we provide courteous and helpful support? Do we treat users as though they're always right? Almost never. Usually we respond with an error message like this:

Server error 152432. Scripting service failure.

Every error message is a user in trouble. Imagine your user, sitting there, late for a meeting, frustrated because they can't do the thing they desperately want to do. What would you want your user to see at that moment? What kind of service should they receive? Every error message you put into your product is an opportunity for good service. You have to plan error messages and error handling into your schedule if you want to provide quality service as part of your Web site or product. Project managers should always add error coverage as a feature that is officially entered in the schedules for the dev and test teams. But keep this in mind: There is no such thing as a great error message. A great error is one that has been eliminated through superior error-handling code and product design.

Service goes beyond error messages that provide great support instead of blaming the user. There are countless opportunities throughout a user's experience to provide great service. Watch someone using the key features of your Web site and ask yourself how it compares to the level of service you'd expect at a good store or restaurant. A good waiter knows when to interrupt you, when to leave you alone, and how to do it all in a courteous and respectful way. The closer your Web site or software quality comes to the levels of good service people get in their daily experiences, the closer you'll be to having a great product.


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