How to make random strangers hate your pet

One of the cool things I do (not astronaut or fireman cool, to be sure) is that I get to help design the user interface for my features. As a writer, this generally just involves writing all of the labels and error messages, but my wife is always joking that I don’t do enough to use my powers for the fame and fortune of our dogs. Clearly, someone at Amazon.com has the same idea.

I had forgotten my iPod at home, so I was using my backup headphones to listen to Pandora. (I’m so ineffective without the noise-canceling effects of music that I keep a pair of backup headphones in my desk drawer. With a little Johnny Cash or Death Cab for Cutie, I’m a tech writing machine.) I liked one of the artists and clicked their Amazon.com link to find out more, only to see this page:

Now, there’s something to be said for friendly error messages — especially in consumer contexts like this one. The reader may even be disarmed enough not to be annoyed. To Amazon or Pandora’s credit, I’ve never seen the “Amazon.com Error Corgi” since, but I’ve encountered cutesy or mascot-themed error messages on other sites.

Flickr, for example, is famous for using the message “Flickr is having a massage” during downtime. The first time I saw this, like the ideal user I mentioned earlier, I was highly amused. The second time I saw this (a month or two later), I was less amused but not annoyed. But when Flickr upgraded the site from Beta to “Gamma” (whatever that means), I saw this and other cutesy but useless error messages over, and over, and over. I was much less amused after several days of being locked out of my account.

The lesson here is that error messages should be easy to understand, but truly informative. (As a side note, I hate Apple error messages because there’s so very little real, actionable information in them. I could go on and on about the uselessness of Apple Help, but I’ll save that for another day.) Attempting to be colloquial or cute can in the long run backfire in situations where the users is likely to see the error repeatedly.

And that’s why Pugsly and Josie will never be featured in any of the error messages I write.

EDIT: Here’s one of the Flickr error messages I was talking about, but didn’t have a screen shot at the time:

Hiccups indeed.

Storm

To the kitchen tilted inland
I slide down in the dark.
The pipes whine and shudder
as I pour myself some water.
I climb through the living room
to the bed that leans toward the sea,
where I take my place beside you,
our feet to the window,
and beyond, the grass, the wind,
the dunes, the waves, the storm.