Error messages are one of the easiest areas to change a few words and unlock the user’s way forward, but they need an owner.
As writers, we can really make a difference by hunting down error messages and making them useful guideposts for our users. It’s common for engineers or other collaborators to wing it and write their own, or pick up and reuse an error message again and again, so I find it’s worth asking for the specifics. There are always more than anyone thinks.
To find the ones that really matter to the business, I look at places like adding a payment, completing an address, updating a profile, or checking in on a purchase. These are all spots where a quick improvement to the wording might mean lots of users are now able to complete their task and make the business money. I also ask the engineers what errors they’re seeing and know are problematic, and talk to my product managers about major pain points. Sometimes people don’t realize a writer can help fix this issue with a simple string change, without any design changes.
Here’s an example of an error that was created for a vague scenario, and ended up becoming the default error that people used whenever something wasn’t working. It does give the user a way forward, which is good. But it was used all over the product, in places where the user would be totally uncertain what was happening.
Getting to what we need and don’t
A few questions I started with were: What’s happening here, technically? What’s the user trying to do? What does “Try Again” do? What can they do if that “Try Again” button doesn’t work?
In this case, the error was coming up because the user had lost their internet connection. And this is where talking to engineers about the specifics really paid off. Could we automatically retry on the backend, instead of having the user click “Try Again”?
We could, and it was a simple change. In the revised version, people saw the error screen much less because the engineer made it so we tried the connection behind the scenes. We fixed things without the user ever knowing there was a problem, which is the best case scenario.
Is this content strategy?
Yes. Not having the user read and do something is as important as having a clear action. Clearing out clutter with some savvy tricks saves the user’s mental energy for the important tasks. Getting rid of steps is a big part of a content strategist’s role, and sometimes the best way to tighten things up is to explore options beyond writing.