"To err is human; to forgive, divine" - Alexander Pope
Traditionally, as designers, we would interpret this to mean our users will always make mistakes and when we “forgive” them (help them get back on their way) we are exhibiting the divine. However, I would argue that we, the designers and developers, need to ask forgiveness from our users.
Humans are inherently prone to make mistakes. We do it all the time. Misreading some copy and clicking on the wrong link. Searching for something that doesn’t exist. Entering in a URL that we mistyped. Attempting to engage with an interface in a way it was not designed for. All of these examples (and thousands more) happen all the time with our products.
It is this moment in which we have a unique opportunity to engage our users in a genuinely human manner. We have just interrupted their workflow and they may or may not be able to accomplish the task that the software is supposed to help them perform. So often, when an error occurs users will often blame themselves and, unfortunately, because we give little to no help, they continue feeling like they have made the mistake.
However, good copy can have a dramatic effect on people’s perception of a product. It can change their attitude in the moment. Is it understandable? Is it genuine? Does it propose alternatives so that the user feels empowered? These are the questions to ask when reviewing the copy across your product, especially the error messaging.
It is clear that we should build in affordances that help the user not make the mistake in the first place. We should create alternate ways out of the situation. We should do everything we can to create a human response to this very human problem.
We failed, not the user. After all, they are using our product. We are responsible for the experience and by admitting there was a problem and attempting to fix it as quickly as possible, we will engender the goodwill and hopefully, the return business of the user.
This doesn’t have to be complex or even all that clever. Instead focus on establishing a clear, consistent language for communication within your product. Make it human. Make it something you would want to read if you were in their place. But most importantly, accept the blame… don’t pay it forward to the user.