Wherein I occasionally rant on various topics including, but not limited to, PHP, Music, and whatever other Topics I find interesting at the moment, including my brain tumor surgery of August 2010.

Monday, June 04, 2012

[Bleep]y Error Messages

[Bleep]y Error Messages.
(My daughters might read this blog, so I need to keep it G audience.)

I encountered yet another useless error message today.

Not that I've blogged before about this, but any developer, any user has experienced this, so I mean yet another useless error message from the corpus of all useless error messages inflicted upon any user anywhere, any time.

And they are legion.

So I won't point out the specific vendor/software/whatever.  I'll just rant about what makes a GOOD error message.

Are you smarter than a 5th grader?

Maybe it was just my school, but we learned the basic Journalism/Essay rules in 5th grade:

  • Who
  • What
  • Where
  • When
  • Why

5th Grade. Five Ws.

Let's apply this to Error Messages:


Exactly WHO is throwing this error message at me?
For some kind of device, like coffee maker, router, car, ok, this should be obvious.
Some routers have mini-web-servers built in, so maybe not...
Maybe the coffee-maker has different components.
Certainly today's cars are complicated enough.
At any rate, all the software/hardware involved should identify WHO they are in the error message:
  • OS Error: Permission Denied.
  • MySQL  Error: Permission Denied.
  • PHP Error: Permission Denied.
  • XYZ (application) Error: Permission Denied.
Every one of those would require radically different approaches to diagnose and correct.

If you, the software/hardware developer are bubbling up or passing on error messages, or to be kosher to an end user, suppressing the error message in favor of a "Something Went Wrong" error message, and logging the real message somewhere for Developers to look at, you still can at least tell the end user WHO is throwing the error message.

Even if you want to hide the inner implementation (E.g. particular Database vendor), at least tell me it's a database error that went wrong!

As a user, I can make an educated guess what course of action to take, or whom to contact within your/my/our organization.

And if the error message is for a Developer or needn't be masked for Security, I need to know who is throwing the error message.

Today's systems are too complex and too many error messages are being passed through, with all context lost.


What exactly went wrong? I need context. I'm not knee-deep into your code, hardware, architecture. I need enough context that I can figure out what actually happened, from Square One of knowledge.

All too often you find an error message that makes zero sense to anybody not intimately familiar with the software.


I don't need just filename, I need the line number.
I don't need just filename, I need the full path.
In all probability, whatever you choose for a filename is going to be used by somebody else as well.
Let me know exactly where the error originates.
Is it configuration?  Business logic? Resources?


I can read the calendar and a clock, so if the error is in real-time, I don't mean that.
Even for an asynchronous error  generated/read, I still need...
When did this error occur relative to what the software was trying to do.
Was it reading the disk, writing to RAM, reading an RSS feed, or trying to feed the pigeons.
I can't begin to diagnose what went wrong with whatever you were doing if I don't know when it happened, relative to your workflow.


Why are we here? Not in a philosophical sense,  but why is this an error in the first place? Why do you need whatever you need to carry on what you are doing? Maybe your idea of the one true source of what you need doesn't match mine. Perhaps I can provide an alternate source.

And a bonus one:


If you're going to tell me something went wrong, you probably have a pretty good idea what I should do to correct it. So why not tell me what to do next, or at least list some actions that will probably be useful.
Whether I have to sacrifice a rubber chicken or poke a voodoo doll or tighten the wing nut, let me know.  Odds are you already know what I need to do.  Tell me. Don't make me spend an hour googling and researching all about your software/hardware/whatever to find out I only have to turn the amp up to 11.
Give me very specific instructions. If it's really long and complicated, give me the references I need to get the instructions.  Preferably multiple references.  I may not have the user manual.  I may not have Internet access. Don't tell me of only one of the two resources. List both.

Maybe I'm just getting too old and turning into a grumpy old man. But I'm very weary of spending my time researching your error messages because you can't communicate. For the same effort, word-count, whatever, except possible thought on your part, you can give me a better error message.

Maybe you think I'm being lazy.
Maybe you think I should just shut up and take it, just like everybody else.

Maybe you think I'm asking to be spoon-fed everything.

After 20+ years of software development, I've served my time reading [bleep]y error messages and trying to make some sense of them.

What we have here is a failure to communicate.

It's not me.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

As an added bonus, you'll not want to strangle your younger self when you come back to your own code 6 months later.