Most technical communicators who work in software will, at some point, be asked to write (or re-write) error and confirmation messages. This is often a very challenging but engaging activity. You have to consider the state of mind of the user who may be annoyed, upset or confused at seeing such a message. A well-written message, therefore, puts the user’s mind at ease by explaining exactly what the problem is and how to resolve it.
Some examples of poorly written and well-written messages help illustrate this:
Poorly-written: Printing device out of media. (Error 34)
Well-written: Your printer is out of paper. Please add paper to the lower tray.
* * *
Poorly-written: Data type mismatch in field 23 – invalid alpha/digit entry. Message class AB43. [INTERNAL NOTE – TELL CUSTOMER HE SHOULD NOT BE SO *$*&%$ing STUPID!!! Homer Smith, Developer A41, Sector 7G]
Well-written message: You have entered numbers into the First Name field: please enter letters only.
* * *
Poorly-written: Illegal access attempt – type A342. DO NOT OVER-NEGATE SUB-CONNECTION. MESSAGE TYPE – DFYWKJ3940983- FAILURE OVERRIDE. Please refer to subtype 5908DM4M67M4454 when quoting this message to your CIO-DM4 manager. (Form 12 is required, of course!) Have a day.
Well-written: You do not have permission to access the record. Please contact the Help desk.
You get the idea…
Recently, Google developed a message for anyone trying to import their Google Gmail contacts into Facebook. Google wanted to warn the user that they cannot export their contact information out of Facebook.
Here is the actual message users will see: (trust me, I am not making this up)
Hold on a second. Are you super sure you want to import your contact information for your friends into a service that won’t let you get it out?
Here’s the not-so-fine print. You have been directed to this page from a site that doesn’t allow you to re-export your data to other services, essentially locking up your contact data about your friends. So once you import your data there, you won’t be able to get it out. We think this is an important thing for you to know before you import your data there. Although we strongly disagree with this data protectionism, the choice is yours. Because, after all, you should have control over your data.
Of course, you are always free to download your contacts using the export feature in Google Contacts.
This public service announcement is brought to you on behalf of your friends in Google Contacts.
__I want to be able to export my data from Facebook. Please register a complaint on my behalf over data protectionism. (Google will not pass on your name or email address.)
__I still want to proceed with exporting this data. I recognize that I won’t be able to export it back out.
[Select one or more options.] [Cancel and go back]
Oh. My. God. Could Google have used more words? This is a terrible message which sends a terrible message. Because of the obvious conflict-of-interest, Google is doing everything it can to scare the user into not proceeding.
It is also ridiculous (not to mention very confusing) to have one of the options be to “register a complaint on my behalf”, which is totally irrelevant to what the user’s intention was. It would be like a Print dialog with the following options:
[Print the document]
[Do not print the document. I do not want to wilfully participate in the destruction of trees. Please automatically email all my contacts to let them know how much I love this planet.]
Even if you think Google should offer some sort of warning, it could have been done much simpler, like this:
Export my Gmail contact information into Facebook? (Note that you cannot export your contact information out of Facebook.)
Software messages must be non-political, non-religious and uncontroversial.
I am “super sure” of that.
You got it right, Andrew. Your comparison to the “No, don't print” message is dead on.
It looks as if Google tried to consider the state of mind of the user, just as you recommended. Trouble was, they thought the user was an impressionable moron.