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Jul 19

Well, this is embarrassing.

Posted on Monday, July 19, 2010 in Uncategorized

It is a well known fact in software development that users do not read. Whether it be your nicely formatted error dialog box or some long introduction on your website. Your users generally just scan the text, click ok (or cancel, whichever is convenient) and move on. But when they do scan your text, you want to make sure they get the message right.

Getting the message right is not as trivial as it sounds. Sometimes, you the developer just forget that your user interface text is not aimed at programmers. (That’s what code comments are for). Other times, some text can be interpreted to mean something else. Let’s examine an example in Firefox.

Most modern browsers have a session recovery feature. This is the feature which makes sure that after a browser crash, you can get back to where you were on the Interwebs, tabs and all. Firefox has had this feature for a while now. If you are a regular Firefox user, then you have probably seen this page before.


Now most geeks or techie types will think nothing of this page. You have probably read about it on many different blogs before the feature was ever released and already know the message written there by heart. You will either click ‘Restore’  or ‘Start New Session’ and get going.

But I recently happened to be able to observe the reaction of a normal (non-techie) user when seeing this page for the first time. My cousin switched on the computer and opened the browser. It seemed the computer had been force shutdown, so the page that came up first was the one above. I noticed the look of horror on my cousin’s face and the question “What did I do?”. I quickly rushed over and when I noticed the page, I went on the reassure her that it was ok and clicking restore would do the trick.

This was an interesting experience for me. I personally had never given second thought to the message before. What about you? Think about the displayed message for a bit.


Most users will only ever read the text in bold. “Well, this is embarrassing.” Without the explanatory text below, it seems to be telling the user that they have done something embarrassing which is causing Firefox not to display the page. Therefore, by implication, the crash is their fault. So while Mozilla may have meant this to be some fun, tongue-in-cheek message (and I personally like it), it may convey a totally wrong meaning and blame to some users.

Let’s look at how Chrome communicates a tab crash to the user.


The icon already informs the user that something went wrong, and the explanatory text tries to be as simple and direct as possible (although users may still not read it). The message above is shown when a single tab crashes, due to Chrome’s multi-process architecture. What about the case where the whole browser crashes? This is what you see.


This view simply offers the choice to restore the tabs and spares the users the details. It both crash cases in Chrome, note the use of language which avoids blaming the user (or inferring blame).

Hopefully, next time you are writing any text in software which is to be seen by a mere mortal, you will think a bit more about it. Always remember that the more words there are, the less likely your users will read them. So let your words be few, and direct to the point!