Nonsensical Error Messages are a Performance Support Issue

I read a lot about user experience and design. It helps me think about how learners (or collaborators) will experience the help and services I offer in my organization. Despite my personal lack of artistic ability, these methods really help me understand process design. I've used methods such as experience mapping (thanks Adaptive Path) to help redesign onboarding in two organizations (blog coming later this week).

This week, after "experiencing" many error messages in the expenses system at my new job, I realised that thinking in terms of UX isn't enough. This was my time of learning need.  Software companies need to think in terms of performance support too.

Syntax Error

Usability issues aside (and there are many), the error messages frustrate me the most because they are the most easily rectified.

Nonsensical error messages convey the creator's disdain for the user - I feel I am not clever enough to understand this complex piece of software. And, as the frustration builds in me, I always wonder - well, why did you build it?

An example: after typing in an expense line, I received the following error "Distance Between Separators for Thousands Must Be 3"

It's a bit like being given a quiz - which is bad enough - with no responsive feedback on your answers. I spent four hours wasting time trying to submit my expenses. This error and many others occurred multiple times, in a big red message box, with no other help.

Performance Support 

Aside from the error not existing, what could have helped me in my moment of learning need? How about forcing the developers and other creators to answer these for each error message:

  1. What is the user error I am making? Explain to someone non-technical the cause of the error. If you can't articulate it to them, it's a software error not a user error. I know you understand it, but you are an expert. How will you articulate it to everyone else?
  2. Why is this an error and does it make sense? If you can't explain why this error occurs with a valid reason, that makes sense to a non-technical person, it's not a user error.
  3. How do I solve this? Most importantly, as (1) and (2) may be occasionally unavoidable. Tell me more about the error in plain language. Tell me the problem in brief and in detail. If I've pressed the wrong button, tell me so. But more than that - tell me why it is incorrect and how to resolve it. Use examples, analogies, and scaffold to different levels of knowledge. Also, give me a social support space to tap a support network, ask a question and get an answer from other human beings.

Better Than IT Training

Yes, an overview before I start would help. And yes, some documentation is a good start. But IT training tends overkill on exceptions, so I will tune out. Error messages are where you should be supporting the exception cases.

If you can't give me this help, my learning ends. Or, I spend countless hours on Google or a corporate Intranet trying to find the help I need. Or, I waste the time of someone who is kind enough to walk me through it. Either way, this doesn't help my performance.

The Answer

So what was the error I kept on making? I used periods/full stops instead of commas when entering expense amounts. Does this make sense to me? A few days later, still no. It may do to those who understand SAP. But why on earth could the error message not have helped me out here! 

(My expenses are still not in - this wasn't the only error message I encountered).