Should error messages apologize?

  • We are having a discussion on our team about an error message that says "Sorry, you do not have permission to access this feature. Please contact your administrator for assistance."

    Is it appropriate to use language of "apology" in this instance? The rationale against it is that it would be more appropriate to "apologize" for something that would be considered solely the "fault" of the application such as downtime. ("Sorry but our site is currently unavailable...please try again later.")

    I'd agree with that rationale. If user enters invalid input, its a mistake on user's part. And if software fails to do something user rightfully expects, its a mistake on software's part.

    Keep in mind that "I'm sorry" does not necessarily mean admitting it's your (or anyone's) fault or mistake. It's often used as a more generic expression of sympathy or regret for what happened, aside from any discussion of whose responsibility it was. As in, "I was sorry to hear that your mother died."

    There's an xkcd comic about that!

    I'd say it depends on how the user arrived to that feature that he's not allowed to access. If he clicked something he'd expect might work, then do apologize. If he had to, say, tweak the URL parameters to arrive to that message, then you should drop the apology to make it a bit more clear that it's not really OK to do that.

    "Contact your administrator" sounds more like an in-house system than a customer service site. I once used a system that had two levels of error messages - I forget what they were called - say, "long" or "short." Users who were familiar with the system might set the level to "short" and just get "No access." It was terminal-based, not web-page-based, so the length mattered to some. There were also many commands one might execute, some appropriate, some not, so errors for new users might be frequent. Context, frequency of errors, level of use - all make a difference.

    You're always allowed to write "I'm sorry" in your error messages if it's immediately followed by "Dave"

    Not if it is used by lawyers - they will take it as an admission of liability ;-)

    I rarely pay attention to the tone of the message as long as it answers the more important question: "What next?"

    On another note, I've seen some pretty funny error messages that tend to leave a better impression, like "Hamsters that power this site have gone on vacation." In a situation where user cannot possibly do anything about it, making them smile seems like a much better choice than apologizing.

    @bvukelic monkeys on Youtube.

    I think this all depends on your user. If some error happens rarely, sure go ahead and tell me how you are sorry that the hamsters died the hamster wheel, but if I have to read even one extra word for a message I see semi-regularly, I just gloss over it, or fail to read the whole message

    If your app is localized, the Canadian English localization should apologize profusely.

  • Mervin

    Mervin Correct answer

    9 years ago

    The reason I believe it is important to have an apologetic tone is to ensure you are communicating to the user that, though a mistake has been made and he is interacting with a machine or application in this case, you still respect his action and are humanizing the mistake.

    To quote this article from UXMatters:

    “You’re going to display your error message to a person, so write it in the tone of voice you would use if you were telling the error message to the person directly.”

    I also recommend looking at this excellent article, Are You Saying “No” When You Could Be Saying “Yes” in Your Web Forms?:

    Error messages seem like an unimportant and incredibly boring part of crafting a user experience. But the tonality of error messages can swing the experience around from an almost certain abandonment to a conversion.

    The article emphasizes that error messages should carry a positive tone and hence an apologetic response can help users quickly recover and not immediately become defensive about a mistake they might have made.

    Writing error messages that carry a positive tone isn’t rocket science. Just follow a few simple rules:

    1. First, get rid of tech lingo such as “incompatible.” Most users won’t know what this means. Speak to them in their own language and not the language of your developers. For example, “incompatible” translates to “does not work together” in plain English.

    2. Don’t use negative words

    3. Clearly identify the error so the user knows what to correct.

    4. Give the user a hint of how the problem can be solved.

    5. Put the blame on yourself, not on the user.

    I also recommend looking at The Effect of Apologetic Error Messages and Mood States on Computer Users’ Self-appraisal of Performance for a study which analyzed the impact of using apologetic error messages on user mood states and how human-like apologetic tones are effective in computer interfaces. To quote an extract from the article

    In HHI, apologies are generally used to express regret (Leech, 1983; Schlenker andDarby, 1981) or to alleviate individuals’ anger caused from their disapproval of others’ action.In other words, apologies mitigate frustration and anger when attempted interactions fail.Similarly, Nielsen (1998) argues that error messages responding to the computer user’s action should include a simple apologetic statement when the reason for the error is the limitation of the computer interface to perform the intended task. Tzeng (2006) conducted a study investigating users’ perceptions of online systems containing three different error messages,each of which includes different politeness strategies. In the study, firstly users’ politeness orientations were elicited and then participants were asked to interact with websites including pre-determined problems. When users encountered problems, the system provided certain error messages representing one positive politeness strategy (i.e. joke), one negative politeness strategy (i.e. a simple apology), and a mechanical message for the error (i.e. the page is temporarily unavailable). The findings of the study showed that users who deal with social events with polite expressions preferred to receive apologetic messages significantly more than mechanical or joke messages, and they preferred apologetic messages significantly more than those messages that are less oriented to polite expressions.

    The article also calls out how an apologetic tone as opposed to a negative tone impacts the perception that users of them selves and how a positive apologetic perception can help in enhancing positive performance

    De Laere, Lundgren, and Howe(1998) compared human-like versus machine-like interaction styles of computer interfaces.They did not observe a significant difference between the different styles in terms of users’self-appraisals. The findings of the study also demonstrated that negative feedback affects the self-perceptions of the participants differently than positive feedback.

    Tzeng (2004) examined whether apologetic feedback affects users’ performance perception in the computerized environment. This study suggested that users may not expect computers to be polite, but apologetic statements made the subjects feel better about their interactions with the program.

    The research paper Computer Apology: The Effect of the Apologetic Feedback on Users in Computerized Environment also calls out why apologetic negative feedback ties into user experience from a social aspect

    The use of apologetic statements with an error message contributes the human-computer interaction. If we consider that the main aim of the user centered design is to create an environment for users in which they feel themselves comfortable, use of apologetic statements in the user interface design become a very important issue. Moreover, in human-human interaction, one of the more important, may be the most, issues is to behave in a respectful manner. In most of the societies when a person does not behave in a respectful manner or makes a mistake towards the other person, apologizing is the traditional and the most effective way in order to overcome the problem. Similarly, this study shows that most of the subjects thought that apologetic feedbacks do not seem awkward to them and 95% of them receiving apologetic feedback felt that apologetic feedback seemed sensitive to them. Here, it seems that subjects find it interesting to confront with respectful behavior such as apologizing when they encounter an error caused by computers’ inability as if they encounter a problem in human interaction. The findings of this study indicate that representing the affective state of a person in the interface design is very important in human-computer interaction because people are more sympathetic to see emotional aspects in the interface such as, sensitivity, respect, and feeling of humanity. Therefore, these results might be used as evidence for the claim that computers’ offering apologetic statements to the users can substantiate the idea of real user centered design.

    On the flip side Microsoft recommends using sorry or an apologetic tone only when a serious error has occurred:

    Use the word “sorry” only in error messages that result in serious problems for the user (for example, data loss or inability to use the computer). Don’t apologize if the issue occurred during the normal functioning of the program (for example, if the user needs to wait for a network connection to be found).

    Can you support the assertion that a "positive tone [is] an apologetic response"? In the chapter I cited in my answer (, the researchers assumed that there were three response types: positive, negative, and mechanical, where apology falls under the category of a response with a *negative* tone.

    Not academically but a postitive message can be conveyed with the help of an apology as it helps in mitigating the frustration and informs the user that he can recover from this error.

    I find this rational interesting. I'm curious though if there's an unintended effect of training the user to blame your program even why they are doing something improperly. Would they start to get the attitude of "this program is junk?"

    Not to sound like a troll, but can be taken more seriously if their site wasn't so hideous and hard on the eyes!

    `you still respect his action` But I don't. He's trying to access something he has no right to access. I don't respect this at all!

    @LightnessRacesinOrbit, the OP's scenario is a selling opportunity. The particular user is attempting to use an aspect of the program for which she isn't licensed. Why not treat her with respect? Of course, a system might say "would you like a 5-day trial of this feature?"

    @Mervin Wow, you added a *lot* of additional research in your last two edits. Very nice! +1

    I worked help desk that did not allow us to "use negative words" It makes you sound like an idiot when you are restricted from using words like "Don't, no, should, cant etc" How would one state that a user has no access to something with out a negative word?

    @MANCHUCK Try two positives to make a negative: "You think you can access that? Yeah, right." ;)

    As a general rule, software should be "apologetic" when it is unable to abide by the user's command because it reinforces the relationship of the machine as the subordinate and the human as master. Too many tech companies (Apple, I'm looking in your direction) make the mistake of thinking that the human is the subservient one to the technology.

    I am not so sure about that one. For example, I totally hate that "He's dead Jim", that Chrome gives me when it crashes. It's there trying to be funny while I am like "Why the hell did it crash AGAIN??". Worse than that is only the Windows 8 bluescreen, that just shows a sad smiley while removing all useful information the original bluescreen had. On the old bluescreen you could see what program caused the error, while the new one treats the user like a child.

    _«For example, “incompatible” translates to “does not work together” in plain English.»_ That's a pretty crazy suggestion. Firstly, practically everybody knows what "incompatible" means, and it's not a phrase specific to technology. Secondly, what a babying replacement phrase!

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Content dated before 7/24/2021 11:53 AM