Good Error Messages

Why is it so difficult to provide users of a system with decent error messages? Today I renewed my IEEE subscription because I wanted to have access to Software magazine on-line. This proved to be much more difficult than I expected, but after 30 minutes the process was finished. So, I went to the appropriate issue of Software and tried to get access to the article I wanted to read. It didn’t work.

Why didn’t it work? Well the error page I got back said, “You are not authorized to access the service or document you requested”. It gave me more than one reason why this might be the case. If a was a member it was either because I wasn’t an active member or a subscriber, if I was a non-member it was because I wasn’t a subscriber. This was completely unhelpful. There was a link at the bottom of the page to allow me to contact member services. When I clicked on this it took me to a page that said, “We are sorry, the page you have attempted to access was not found on the IEEE web-site…”

Why couldn’t they provide me with more information? I couldn’t work out from the message whether or not they even recognised my user name. Maybe I was typing it in incorrectly. If I was typing it in correctly surely they would have
been able to work out if I was a member or non-member. I went back to the site and tried accessing documents with a made up user name. The message I got back told me that “Your Username and/or Password are not recognized”. Well from this I managed to work out that my user name and password must have been valid.

What I would like is a clear message that tells me as much information as possible, something like:

It was not possible for you to view the requested document because your account has not been valid since September 2002. To renew your subscription please click here. If you have renewed your subscription in the past 24 hours the system will not yet have been updated. If there is still a problem please contact…

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