Every internet user has experienced the frustration of not connecting to the internet page they want. And by now, most internet users have encountered cute or clever error messages, often “page not found” (“error 404“) messages. These cute attempts by search engines and content providers try to lessen the user’s annoyance when something goes wrong. Clever “page not found” errors have become so prevalent that the design magazine SpeckyBoy cataloged 50 of the best. Certainly, these clever approaches are better than other options, such as 1) no explanation at all, 2) a dry, technical message about the problem, or 3) a message making the problem seem like the user’s fault. But some of the messages I’ve encountered lately may be too cute for their own good. Cute is a great supplement to a helpful message, but a poor substitute for one.
With that in mind, I’ve been compiling error messages that achieve, or at least attempt, “cute,” in order to find that fine line where cute can still be helpful. Prepare for an onslaught on mildly amusing error screens!
Cute but Helpful
The best cutesy error messages manage to get a laugh (or at least a chuckle), calm the user, place the blame elsewhere, and give the user some options for moving forward. By that criteria, this “page not found” screen from Zenplanner.com is the best error message I’ve seen in the past few months.
The “Oh My, How Undignified..” is just funny enough to lighten the situation (especially since users probably imagine the webpage speaking in a British accent. At least I did). Plus, the humor also focuses the blame on the website instead of the user. And the page presents plenty of options for moving forward.
Firefox uses a similar approach with their error screen, which I consider one of the classics of the genre:
Again, the humor is light and focuses blame on Firefox instead of the user. Plus, users get some suggestions for moving forward (but not links, as in the Zenplanner example above).
And I’m probably biased, but the error screen for my home institution, UAH, balances cutesy and helpful nicely:
I think it’s the “UH OH” sign that does it for me. Well, that plus the helpful search box that offers a way forward. The page also puts the technical details at the bottom in light gray font – they are there if you need them, but not in your face where you don’t want them.
Just Cute Enough
Unlike the examples above, some pages just manage to justify their cutesyness by either being pretty funny or marginally helpful (but rarely both). This Google error, with the broken robot, is just endearing enough to momentarily take a user’s mind off the lost page. But the “that’s an error” message doesn’t prove helpful or funny, and the poor robot can’t offer much advice beyond just trying again in 30 seconds, which is what most users would likely try anyways.
On the other hand, some error screens are useless but so funny that they can get away with providing no help. For instance, one of my colleagues recently found this error while searching a library site. It pretty much speaks for itself:
This screen is so cute you might actually be happy that you encountered an error.
Then, there are the error screens that just don’t work. They’re either not helpful, not funny, or both. The retro feel of this Panopto error screen does little to alleviate a user’s irritation, and it provides nothing but a dead end.
But the worst “cute” error message I’ve seen recently is more confusing than funny.
The highly trained monkeys line shows promise, but then the joke goes too far. Can I really contact someone, monkey or not? Should I really share this text? Does the text actually mean something, or is it part of the joke? Plus, the giant block of text isn’t helping anything.
The Bottom Line
Cute error messages show that technical communication can be fun, personable, and engaging. At their best, they improve an unpleasant experience. At their worst, they intensify it. If you’re aiming for a cute error message, make sure that the tone of the joke fits in with the overall message, places the blame off the user, and provides users a way forward.