Tuesday, June 12, 2012

A menagerie of failure

Among my duties at work is to review error messages, and one of our guiding principles is to understand that the user (in our case, the user is a programmer) who encounters an error message is not likely to be in a jovial state of mind. We aim toward the pragmatic: inform the user what happened, and suggest, as best we can, what the user can do to recover from the error condition. Just the facts, ma'am.

I note this as background because of a trend in the last few years toward error messages that have a heavy dose of whimsy. A well-known example is the image that decorates errors on the Twitter site, namely the fail whale (or Fail Whale):

Twitter's famous "fail whale"

The term fail whale has generalized to mean "large-scale failure" (or in the current parlance, "epic fail"). For example, The Huffington Post used the term fail whale in an article headline that recounts various financial setbacks and failures.

The fail whale spawned a new way to present error information, and there is now an entire collection of fail pets. Wikipedia lists the fail pets for a variety of additional websites:

For all the whimsy, though, the truth remains that an error is an error, and even if it's a cute one, you can only do so much to mitigate people's annoyance. As an article points out, a problem with personification of an error is that once the novelty wears off, the fail pet stops being amusing and becomes synonymous with failure. Ars Technica user: "Anyone get MoonSharked lately?" (Which as an aside shows a neat verbification of the mascot.) 

Whatever the trends in error messages, we have gotten the useful terms fail whale and fail pets out of it. Whether the terms have legs, of course, remains to be seen. 

You can read considerably more about the evolution and effectiveness of fail pets in a thoughtful article (The Evolution of Fail Pets : Strategic Whimsy and Brand Awareness in Error Messages) in UX Magazine

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