What makes a good error message?

No one enjoys receiving errors messages, but software that fails silently or proceeds with the wrong assumptions is even worse.

Errors are encountered by real users with real goals. The error message is a communication method to help the user continue their goal.

3 questions for every error

  • WHY the program could not proceed?
    Context about the goal of the process being executed and why the situation is an error. If the error is due to user input or data from other systems, ensure to include it in the error message. Sometimes user doesn’t provide the input in the right format or the system picks or parses the wrong input. Announce your assumptions for the error.
  • HOW the error was detected?
    A map for finding the root cause and inspecting more. Stack trace, error code or even a state dump is very useful.
  • WHAT can be done to resolve it?
    Suggestions for recovering or taking an alternative path to the goal. If this is a typical error, mention one or more alternatives that can usually help solve the issue. If you have support channels make sure to include them as well.
  • WHERE did the error happen?
    This provides useful context information for the developers trying to trace and/or reproduce the error.
  • WHEN did the error happen?
    Usually a form of timestamp. This information can help correlate the error to failures in other systems while inspecting the root cause.
  • WHO was trying to achieve the goal?
    Usually some form of identification like user id, session id or even user name. This data might be subjected to GDPR regulation, see my other articles introducing GDPR and pseudonymization techniques.

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Sr. Staff Engineer, Knowledge Worker, MSc Systems Engineering, Tech Lead, Web Developer

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Alex Ewerlöf

Alex Ewerlöf

Sr. Staff Engineer, Knowledge Worker, MSc Systems Engineering, Tech Lead, Web Developer

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