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Crafting Delightful Broken Experiences

By Matthew Edgar · Last Updated: July 22, 2018

Like it or not, technology isn’t perfect. Technology can and will break, causing errors when it does. We’ve all experienced errors while browsing the web. Unfortunately, we’ve all experienced errors on our own websites. Maybe a server crashed and we couldn’t access a site. Or, maybe a search form didn’t give us results, even though it should have. Or, maybe we clicked a broken link and landed on a 404 error page. Regardless of the specific error, the point is things break.

When things break, it has a negative effect on the people visiting our website. Think about how you respond to the errors you encounter. You are frustrated and annoyed by that error. That error is getting in your way and preventing you from doing whatever it is you wanted to do.

The same is true for our visitors. Visitors who see an error—any type of error—are frustrated because that error is in their way. The frustration isn’t the problem, though. The problem is what visitors do about the frustration:

  • For starters, that frustration means that person will more than likely leave your website. Who wants to stay on a website that is broken? Not me!
  • Worse, the visitors who leave will be less likely to return in the future. Who wants to go back to a broken website? “Ack, don’t click that link…that site is always broken.”
  • A visitor who chooses to leave and not return is more than likely not going to become your customer. Who wants to buy from a website that is broken? That error breaks down the trust people have not just with your website, but with your entire business.
  • Worse still, that visitor is also not going to refer other people to your website. Who wants to refer their friends to a broken website? “Hi, friend, please check out this website full of errors!” Not going to happen. This costs you referral business, which is the lifeblood of many companies.

You can think of this as a ripple effect. The problem isn’t that people encounter an error on your website, it is what happens after people see that error that really matters the most. The more errors people encounter, the worse this problem becomes.

All right, so what? Errors are bad and can cost you customers. We can just fix those errors. Right? No big deal.

Errors Are A Big Deal

Unfortunately, the other reality regarding errors is that we’ll never entirely get rid of errors on our websites. We might (should!) debug thoroughly while programming our site. We might (should!) respond quickly to the errors as we discover them.

But, let’s face it, when it comes to web technology we are dealing with complex systems. In any complex system, there will always be something that doesn’t work great for the people visiting our websites. There will always be some group of people who are unable to use some part of our website, like our search form or contact form. This isn’t pessimism, just the reality of technology.

What Can We Do About Errors?

What are we to do about this? The point here is to accept that errors are going to occur. When they occur, those errors will have a negative effect on the people visiting our website. What we need to do is figure out how to reduce the frustration so that we can reduce those negative impacts. In other words, how do we get rid of the negative ripple effects when people inevitably encounter errors on our websites?

What we can do is build error messages that help our visitors move beyond that error. The easier people can move beyond the error, the less frustration they will have regarding the error. Remember, what causes that frustration in the first place is that the error acts as a roadblock preventing people from doing whatever it is they wanted to do.

Given that, we need to create friendly and helpful errors that give people who reach an error the ability to recover from that error. We want people to stay on our website even though they reached an error. If somebody can reach an error, recover from that error, and stay on our website, that ripple effect starts to disappear.

Creating a Friendly Broken Experience

So where should you begin when creating a friendly broken experience for your customers? The first part of this solution is a fairly simple one: create a custom “Not Found” page. Instead of getting that generic white page all of us have seen at one time or another, your customers visiting the broken page on your website, will see a friendly page that is designed like the rest of your website.

The content on the custom “Not Found” page needs to help users find what they were looking for before they encountered the broken link. You want the custom “Not Found” page to help your users get to where they wanted to get to in the first place without making them work too much harder.

To accomplish this, the content on the “not found” page doesn’t need to be terribly involved. However, you do need to give some thought to what content should be here by determining the content most likely to help your website visitor. For example, if you have a search engine on your website, link to it, or present the search box on this page. It is also useful to provide a link back to the main sections of your website.

Many people think that the best content for the “not found” page is to simply redirect “not found” errors to the website’s home page. There are numerous problems with this approach but the largest problem is that the home page doesn’t do what the “not found” error page needs to do. While the home page is about promoting the highlights of the website, the “not found” page is about helping people who are lost find what they were looking for. The home page and the not found page are two entirely separate pages with two entirely separate purposes.

Please know, we are not suggesting you don’t try to fix the errors. If you can easily get rid of an error technically, then by all means please do so. However, you need to accept that errors are going to happen. Because of that, we need to focus on the experience our visitors have when they reach an error and do our best to help visitors recover from that error.

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