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About Face 3: The Essentials of Interaction Design by David Cronin, Robert Reimann, Alan Cooper

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Chapter 25. Errors, Alerts, and Confirmation

In Chapter 24, we discussed the bulletin dialog, commonly issued by applications when they have problems or confront decisions they don’t feel capable of making, or really any time they have something to notify users about. In other words, these dialog boxes are used for error messages, alerts, and confirmations, three of the most abused components of modern GUI design. With proper design, these dialogs can all but be eliminated. In this chapter, we explore how and why.

Error Dialogs

There is probably no user-interface idiom more abused than the error dialog. They are typically poorly written, unhelpful, rude, and worst of all, are never in time to prevent the error in the first place. Users never want error messages. Users want to avoid the consequences of making errors. This is very different from saying that they want error messages — it’s like saying that people want to abstain from skiing when what they really want to do is avoid breaking their legs. As usability heavyweight Donald Norman points out, users frequently blame themselves for errors in product design. Just because you aren’t getting complaints from your users doesn’t mean that they are happy getting error messages.

The idea that an application doesn’t have the right — even the duty — to reject a user’s input is so heretical that many practitioners dismiss it summarily. Yet, we’d like to suggest that if you examine this assertion rationally and from a user’s point of view, ...

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