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The fine art of writing error messages

Error messages are one of the most critical aspects of our software, though it receives surprisingly little attention. Error messages are displayed to our software's users when something bad happens. Our users will be in a negative state of mind: confused, afraid, angry, or a combination of the above. Our job as software developers is to provide them with reassurance, and to help them identify the issue and resolve it. To do that in an efficient manner requires understanding our code, the user's state of mind and abilities, and the use of language.

What is the context of your error message?

Let's consider a very simple situation which warrants an error message: a form validation error in an e-commerce component. This could happen in different context. The site owner may have forgotten to enter the information required to integrate with the payment provider. A backend user with data entry-only privileges may have forgotten to enter the price information for a product variation, e.g. the price of blue t-shirts. A frontend user (client) may have forgotten to enter their street address.

On the face of it, these are all the same thing: form validation error. Let's just set up a few rules in the form and some checks in our Table and throw an exception when something's wrong, Joomla will convey that as error messages on the user interface and all is well, right?


Our exception results to an error message which is very technical, unhelpful and lacks any empathy. For example “You need to provide the Stripe API key”. This is mostly okay in the first context of the site owner. It is a bit jarring for the data entry person to tell them “Price is required!”. Woah, there, mister! Is this an e-commerce extension for a mass-distributed CMS or Checkpoint Charlie in the height of the Cold War?! It is definitely not a good experience for our prospective client to tell them “The Address is required”. We are putting them off and they might abandon their cart to go to the competition.

Do not always assume that you can convey the same message, the same way, in every context. Think about the context and adjust your messages accordingly. For example, in the case of conveying messages to the end user (client) we may have to catch the internal exception and “reshape” the error message. We could instead tell them “Your order information is saved but your order is not submitted yet. Some information we need to process it is missing. Please review the fields marked with a red outline below. If the problem isn't solved after editing your information and clicking on Purchase please contact customer support.”.

What makes an error message good?

An error message needs to be reassuring. Remember that you are talking to a human who expected something to happen and now they are met with a scary message. Keep the tone serious, but not completely dry. If you know that the application is in a state which is recoverable lead by reassuring the user that this is the case. If it's not in a recoverable state but there is a good chance that the problem can be rectified lead with the fact that there is resolution in sight. If your application is in a dire situation which cannot possibly be recovered from you should try to ease the user into that fact, like a doctor giving someone the bad news that they have 3 months to live.

An error message must be factual: it needs to say what happened and why it happened. An error message “Something went wrong” is worse than no error message at all. Tell the user what went wrong. Avoid using technical jargon unless the target audience is most likely to be the site integrator and the technical jargon is relevant to the resolution of the problem.

For example, if the problem is that there's been a cURL error fetching data from a third party API processing payments the message to show an end user would be “We could not connect to the third party service which processes payments on our behalf”. Conversely, the message to show to the site integrator for the same problem would be something like “Timeout of 30 seconds exceeded contacting PayBuddy”.

When you have to present ‘dumbed down’ error messages to the end user it's very helpful logging the more technical details and provide the end user with a unique identifier which allows the site integrator to locate this particular error message in the log file so they can provide assistance.

An error message must be helpful. Telling someone what went wrong and possibly why is one thing. Helping the resolve it is a completely different issue altogether. Tell your user what they should be doing next. If the message targets end users the resolution should be fairly short and simple to follow; remember that the user is not in a good mental state right now. If the message targets a site integrator it is best to link them to a documentation page relevant to the issue at hand so they can read more about what happened and how to troubleshoot it.

If there is a reasonable amount of use cases where the target audience will not be able to address this issue by themselves try to include a link to further steps, be it watching a video tutorial, reading a documentation page, asking help on a forum, contacting their host, or contacting the site owner / extension developer — again, you need to choose the appropriate action based on the target audience.

If you provide a further action which requires the user to contact another person make sure to do it in a way which will guide the user into providing all the necessary information. If at all possible, collect all the necessary information and transmit it with the user's consent (think about how major Operating Systems and browsers implement a “crash assistant”).

Finally, keep the error messages concise (short and to the point). Nobody will read a novel-length error message, even if it is the most informative and helpful resource in the Universe.

These requirements are oftentimes at odds with each other. Finding the appropriate error message requires understanding your target audience and their use cases. This is not easy. Your understanding of the target audience and their use cases will improve over time, and the audience itself and their use cases will also evolve over time. Do not be afraid to revise your error messages, the way you present them, and your documentation on how to troubleshoot them.

A good way to approach error messages is to make them friendly, short, informative, and when the resolution is more than ten words do link to a longer documentation page which takes the user by the hand and helps them resolve the issue. Yes, you will have the users who can't be bothered to read the documentation (like death and taxes, they are unavoidable), as well as the users who got lost reading it (approach it as an opportunity to understand their challenges and improve your documentation). In the end of the day you have helped far more users figure out what to do without contacting you, and without feeling overly frustrated, angry, or stupid. We don't hear about those users but if they become the majority of our users then we can say we are doing the right thing as developers.

If you want to see what good error messages are like, take a look at Joomla Update's archive extraction step since Joomla 4.0.4. When something fails it will tell you what failed, why it failed, the next steps to follow and links to a documentation page with troubleshooting information. Unfortunately, we could not link to specific troubleshooting steps as the Wiki format is rather limited but you can definitely do even better!