Reading Usable Help
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Gordon R. Meyer
Error messages that help
Ideally, tech writers are involved in writing the error messages, warnings, and alerts that a product displays for users. But it's a task that is often left towards the end of a project and sometimes the best that can be done is to make sure that the messages are grammatically correct and don't contain spelling errors. If there is time, however, a recent IBM study suggests that error messages should be regarded systematically, not individually, as multiple messages can be misleading if they're not well-planned.
In Error Messages: What's the Problem? Paul Maglio and Eser Kandogan observe:
Error, warning, status, and other information messages play a fundamental role in the way people reason about computer failures. By examining how computer users really behave, we found that messages in fact determine what users think and do when confronted with problems. That is, messages do not simply alert users to problems, they guide problem-solving behavior.
Read the article at the ACM Queue website.
See also: Recognizing an Error When You See It.