Oct 052013

Computer error messages are only as good as the programs that call them

In other words, if the program is badly designed or badly tested then you may not be able to glean any useful information from a displayed error message other than “something’s gone wrong”.

Here’s an example that I would guess at least 80% of computer users have encountered at some time:

Your email is automatically being checked in the same way that it’s always automatically checked every five or ten minutes when suddenly a box pops up suggesting that your password is wrong. I have known people spend hours trying to find the “right” password, whereas the real problem is that there is something else preventing the email from being accessed. The password hasn’t changed and it isn’t wrong. Or, more likely, the password wasn’t wrong when the error message popped up, but you’ve now tried so many different possible combinations that you have little chance of getting back to the right one if you haven’t properly recorded the password somewhere. See one of my previous harangues on this subject.

I had something a bit like this happen to me this morning. Too early in my brain’s daily cycle to tackle anything meaningful, I idly clicked on a new email from LinkedIn advising me that someone had kindly “endorsed” me for something (no, I’m not convinced, either, that any of this stuff has any merit or meaning). Then I clicked on the “People you may know…. see more” link on the LinkedIn website. Instead of leading me to waste another precious three minutes of my life wading through pages of people I may know, I was taken to a badly formatted page that suggested that I was being penalised for having had too many of my “let’s be friends on LinkedIn” requests rejected by people saying they don’t know me.

"Problem Exists" messageHuh? How come? I never send such requests to people I don’t know. Even allowing for the odd case of poor memory, it’s just not possible that LinkedIn’s allegation could be true – and I’m not paranoid enough to be persuaded otherwise.

Well, the caffeine finally kicked in and I got on with my day. A little later, a website that I visit from time to time wouldn’t take me to a particular page and I happened to notice that there was a reference at the bottom of my browser (Firefox) to javascript. Nothing was happening and the reference to javascript just stayed there. “Aha”, methinks, “maybe javascript has got itself turned off”. So I dived into Firefox’s “config” page (bravely ploughing on past Firefox’s wonderful warning of “here be dragons”) and, sure enough, javascript was set to “off”. No idea how it happened, but I turned it back on and the website I had been trying to access let me carry on as normal.

"Press Key" messageA little later, the caffeine had really started working on my synapses and it suddenly occurred to me that my problem with LinkedIn might have been related to javascript and its offness. If so, normal service should be resumed now that I’d turned javascript back on. And so it was. Clicking on the “People you may know…. see more” link once more displayed pages and pages and pages of people who I either don’t know or don’t want to know any more.

"Change user" messageWhat had happened in this case wasn’t exactly an incorrect error message, but something in the programming on LinkedIn’s web page went wrong when a piece of javascript couldn’t execute, and I was left wondering what I’d done to upset LinkedIn. The answer was “nothing”. I hadn’t upset them. It was just a problem on their web page and I’d allowed myself to be misled as to the cause.

"Enter Prime" messageThere’s definitely a moral here about not completely trusting what you read on a computer screen when it doesn’t behave the way you expect it to. Although, deep down, we really do know that a computer program (or web page) is not human and is not capable of making the infinitely subtle and nuanced decisions that human beings can make, nevertheless our initial tendency when something unexpected happens on the computer is to believe what we are looking at! Maybe that error message on the email programs that suggests that you’ve either got your username or password wrong should really say something to the effect of

“Bit of a problem, I’m afraid. Can’t access your email. Maybe your username or password has been entered incorrectly or maybe there’s some other problem. By all means have a go at re-entering your username and password. If you still get the same result then the problem lies elsewhere and I can’t help any further as I’m just a humble little error message that gets called up every time something goes wrong, and I’m ever so sorry but I’m not clever enough to suggest anything more sophisticated than checking your username and password. Oh, one final piece of advice: don’t risk re-entering your password unless you are absolutely sure that you know what it is”.

Now, why couldn’t Microsoft think of that?

© 2011-2019 David Leonard
Computer Support in London
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