Unable to write 'Amusing Weekly Column'. Abort, Retry, Fail?

Don't fret, we're just having a technical

Something for the Weekend? Please accept our apologies. We had a technical which slowed down our response times.

Run that by me again. You had "a technical"? What does that mean?

When I saw this pop up in response to an almost-forgotten issue I had logged earlier in the week, I naturally assumed a word was missing after "a technical". But which word? A technical what?

Incompetence? Meltdown? Uprising? Castration? Doo-doo? Tiswas? Decision by the umpire but contested by the players on court leading to a minor riot on Court No. 1?

Or, just possibly, "a technical" is modern parlance to describe any problem, error, hiccup, freeze, crash or whatever. If so, I like it. It's not just all-encompassing, it's… oh I dunno… kind of mysterious, surreal, even.

It evokes the voyage of wonderment in a simpler age of computing. None of this "You have experienced error KY12898H3" specificity. Just… "We have a technical". It is eminently fungible.

This used to be the norm. Let me take you back in time to some of my favorite error messages of yesteryear.

Keyboard Error: Keyboard not responding. Press any key to continue.

Ah, you can't beat the classics. Error messages such as this are sorely under-appreciated. It has everything: unnecessary repetition while still managing to be concise, an invocation of general helplessness, and even throws in an infuriatingly ironic denouement involving impotent audience participation. Marvelous stuff. Ingenious, actually.

Especially strong is the way it tells you what you already know. You notice that your keyboard is no longer responding to keystrokes, and the software considers this the perfect moment to trigger a UI sub-routine designed to tell you your keyboard is no longer responding to keystrokes. Imagine your screen goes blank one day, and a synthesized voice rasps out of your speakers announcing: "Your screen has gone blank." No explanation, no solution. Just stating the bleeding obvious for the fun of it.

Better still, why not show an on-screen error message to let you know your screen has gone blank? Perfect.

This cannot possibly be accidental. More than just deliberate, it's an art form. I can't help admiring the amount of work that went into producing such an infuriating loop.

Also, I am a particular fan of brevity in an error message. Somehow the lack of any attempt to offer an explanation makes it all the more powerful.

Runtime Error.

Oh yes, that was a great one. What did it mean? Well, depending upon whether you worked for Microsoft or a developer, it either meant the application was written by bozos or Microsoft's libraries were crap. But that's irrelevant: the message was intended for showing to users, not programmers. Perhaps users thought they were being told it was bad time to go out for a run.

Invalid syntax.

Another classic. Urban myth has it that this error message irritated a number of hypochondriac devs who misconstrued it as a sarcastic comment on their command-line skills.

Abort, Retry, Fail?

Now we get back to my favorite error message sub-genre: the surreal. As with "Invalid syntax" above, "Abort, Retry, Fail?" was a familiar prompt in the command-line era. I used to see it frequently throughout the day, every day, in my first job. A colleague tried to explain to me what it indicated – something to do with a file-level flimgerboo being unable to circumtudinate its snickdangle – but what it really meant was "Your floppy disk is fucked."

Perhaps programmers were more sensitive to the nuance of language back then but I could never distinguish the concepts of "Abort" and "Fail" in the context. Surely they both mean "Give up what you are trying to do and ask around to see if anyone has a copy of Norton Utilities." It's a bit like "Yes / No / Cancel" in the GUI era: if "No" means "Don't carry out the command," does that mean "Cancel" is a kind of Schrödinger alternative in which you simultaneously do and do not want to carry out the command, possibly in a fourth dimension?

The most surreal thing, of course, was that it didn't actually matter whether you typed A, R or F. Any of the three responses simply produced the same "Abort, Retry, Fail?" prompt... over and over again, indefinitely, until you ripped out the floppy and tossed it out the back window where the bins are while your PC continued to make that nasty naaAAAr! naaAAAr! sound akin to neighbors drilling holes in the party wall at midnight on Sunday, the bastards.

Today, with the mellowness that passing time brings, I can look back with fondness on "Abort, Retry, Fail?" – perhaps even forgiveness. I think it would make an excellent refrain to a folk pub drinking song.

Unknown Error.

Stepping further into that fourth dimension, "Unknown Error" is both beautifully succinct and utterly useless while at the same time maintaining an air of mystery. The author of this error message probably just intended it to be a businesslike equivalent to "Meh" but to me it suggests "An error from The Unknown has slipped through a tear in the space-time continuum" – which, if you think about it, explains a great deal about how computers actually work when put on users' desks.

The Unknown has made its presence felt in more direct ways. A long while back, Mme D had a freaky error message pop up while working in Microsoft Word on an early version of Mac OS X. It announced, ominously:

Word cannot edit the Unknown.

We grabbed a screenshot and had it published in Fortean Times magazine (this was before the Web 2.0 era) but the screenshot along with that issue of FT have since been lost somewhere in a long-forgotten backup CD-R and filing box in the cellar. We began to become unsure that it had ever happened. Perhaps it had come to us in a dream? So I was delighted to discover a fellow cross-dimensional traveler had experienced the same thing just a few years ago and uploaded his screenshot to a blog post.

Completely useless messages directed at users are still very much with us today, but they tend to be a bit contrived, certainly more verbose, and rely on cross-media complexity to get the joke across. For example, a service on a banking website stops working and pops up a message that invites you to phone them instead; you comply and are put on hold while a recording of an overbearingly cheerful, slightly insane-sounding person says you can save time by going to the website.

Things have improved in recent years thanks to the recognition of UX/UI design as a profession. Experts in this field apply simple principles of psychology to minimize the infuriation factor of error messages. From the developer's point of view, it probably makes no difference whether an error message has been scripted to say "This app is having trouble opening your document at the moment" or "Your data is toast, fool." From the user's point of view, it's the difference between seeking assistance from helpdesk and yelling impotent abuse at them.

The choice of appropriate terminology, calming words of reassurance that suggest "It's not your fault, really it isn't": it's all in the psychology of modern interface design. You can see it more and more, as the once-brutal "Yes, we can see it's not working! What have you done, moron?" has given way to a calmer tone: "Not to worry, let's try some things together to fix it."

OK, so it's not as funny but we all have to grow up at some point. That's what my kids tell me, anyway.

What would be good is if UX designers could come up with a formula for error messages that combines information, reassurance, and usefulness, yet with brevity.

I'd try to devise a formula myself but, you know, I have a technical. ®

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Alistair Dabbs
Alistair Dabbs is a freelance technology tart, juggling tech journalism, training and digital publishing. He would like to establish a grand, official-looking wiki for error messages in which the finest examples of the art could be enshrined, accompanied by screenshots and critical commentary. Imagine the star-studded ceremonies as development teams are inducted into the Error Message Hall of Infamy. More at Autosave is for Wimps and @alidabbs.

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