A few weeks ago, I was on the ground floor of my office, when the elevator arrived. I pressed '4' while I continued chatting with my colleague. We reached 4th floor and noticed the lift didn't stop. I was under some imaginary pressure to prove to my colleague that I had pressed '4' indeed, as she stared at me. While I was explaining what just happened, she said, 'The elevator behavior is right. You are wrong." Apparently, if one pressed '4' and the elevator goes to basement or other lower levels and returns to ground floor, the switches are reset. Was it human error or system error?
Most failures are evil because they tell us, we did the wrong thing. They tell us, that it's something WE did that resulted in failure. They tell us that WE screwed up. According to Don Norman, over 90% of industrial accidents are blamed on human error. You know, if it was 5%, we might believe it. But when it is virtually always, shouldn't we realize that it is something else? The systems were wrong? Perhaps.
Sidney Dekker, believes, that "human error is not a cause of series accidents, but a symptom of trouble, deeper inside a system". We are humans. We cannot be accurate and precise all the time. We are pre-occupied, we are in different states of mind at different times and we have our own way of living our lives and dealing with challenges. As a result, we commit mistakes. Is that really a failure on our part, or the system was not designed intuitively enough, to be able to avoid mistakes from humans or, even, guide the user when mistakes happen.
Murphy's law states that "Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong". While things can go wrong, helping users recover from such situations can go a long way in building credibility and loyalty with the user.
Recoverability of errors is a key element to be considered while designing products. When errors occur, the following five elements can repair the damage (to some degree), the error might have caused to users in first place.
1. Provide visibility to the user of what was done
An error occurs when user did something that the system doesn't know how to handle. When users make mistakes and get no feedback, they're completely lost. For e.g, sending an email that's eaten up by a virus, but the recipient doesn't know a thing about it. When error occurs, it's good to tell the user, exactly what the user did a few moments ago. This way, it might help the user realize whether his actions were right or not and make amends accordingly.
2. Do/Show/Tell the user what went wrong
Once the error has occurred, the user needs to know what really went wrong in the first place. The message displayed to the user should be clear enough to state what actually went wrong. This information is additional to providing visibility above where user is told what he did vs what went wrong after that.
3. Indicate how the user can reverse unwanted outcome
Users are least interested in geeky or innovative error messages. They just want to get out of the error situation as soon as possible. Including error codes like 'Type 2 error number 10000345 occurred' is least informative and/or useful. The error message displayed should tell the user how to reverse the error or what is the next best thing to do, to recover from this error. In short, how can the user go back to base state of the application where he left off before the error occurred is critical for the user to know. Additionally, giving useful advice to the user to fix the problem is good. For e.g, On an e-commerce app, just saying, a book went out of stock is definitely worse when compared to providing 'Notify' feature that notifies you when the book is back in stock.
4. If reversibility is not possible, indicate this to the user
In some cases, reversing an error is not possible. In such a case, it is best to indicate the user to force-close the application and start from scratch or from a specific location in the app. Take an example of password fields. When a user enters the most simplest password, an error message throws with a big list of instructions for a strong password. Instead, if the user is warned upfront about these instructions in the form of a label below the password field, the hassle could be avoided.
5. Preserve User Data
The app must be able to preserve user's data at all times and never ever corrupt or leak confidential information. Period!
An error that can be made will be made. For e.g. if you miss-spell 'Murph's Law' in Google, it displays results, but also displays 'Showing results for 'Murphy's Law'. It turns an error into a good feeling. Transforming an error situation to actually helping the user is an intelligent way to deal with an error. Here's a message from Don Norman about error messages: "Error messages punish people for not behaving like machines. It is time we let people behave like people. When a problem arises, we should call it machine error, not human error: the machine was designed wrong, demanding that we conform to its peculiar requirements. It is time to design and build machines that conform to our requirements. Stop confronting us: Collaborate with us."
Graceful Recoverability from errors defines a new avenue for organizations to create great user experiences.
What do you think?