Why not to say “sorry” in error and info messages

Liva
Liva
Jan 24, 2017 · 4 min read

One of the first tasks I had to do after joining honestbee was to review some error messages. As an average user (my background is in content marketing), I had never paid any attention to error content. Whenever I saw the word “sorry”, I spaced out.

deliveroo.com.sg

When faced with the task, I did my utmost best to make the messages consistent, pleasant and start every single one with “sorry”. And not just error messages, all kinds of informational content.

I think there are two reasons for it:

  1. Lots of products do it. I thought it is the norm.
  2. I want to be kind and empathetic to our users.

As for number 1—lots of other people doing something does not a good reason make.

It’s more fun to be a pirate than to join the Navy.

Steve Jobs

Number 2 is a more complex issue. At honestbee, everyone of us at the design team has to experience conducting user research and doing customer service. I love it. It has allowed me to become more empathetic and to truly look at things from a perspective that is very different from my own.

I thought that by saying sorry, I am making the content more human and preventing users from getting angry.

One day at a design review, my manager asked me why do I use the word “sorry”. The simple answer was that I had never considered not to. But it made me think, what real value was I adding?

Look at the message below. A user’s card has expired. It is not a big deal and can happen to anyone. It seems that I am turning a neutral situation into a bad one. Why am I making the user feel bad?


I think the worst “sorry use case” is when content designers apologise for how the product or service functions. If you are putting your user in a situation where you can’t do anything but apologise — a horrible situation with no upside — rethink the whole product or service. Talk to operations, business, designers and the CEO, if need be. Just saying sorry won’t help.

It is easy to view any restrictions imposed on the user as a bad thing. For example, we could say sorry every time a user tries to add items from multiple restaurants to cart.

But we don’t. Yes, it is a restriction, however, we truly want to do the best by our customers. We believe that this “restriction” improves the overall service experience. Of course, an info message is not the place to explain our business decisions in length but we can be more positive about the whole thing.

If we were to constantly apologise for our business decisions, we would eventually convince our users that our product isn’t a very good one. Even if they once thought otherwise.

Another reason why “restrictions” can be good is that we are not targeting every single person on the planet. As all businesses, we are building our product for a particular “buyer persona”. We use “restrictions” to make the product better for our ideal customers.


Of course, I don’t at all mean that you should never apologise. My customer service training taught me that, when things truly go wrong, no beautifully written template answer can stand up to a sincere, human apology.

However, info and error messages are not meant to deal with individual situations. I see them as educational content that will be consumed by masses. It is inevitable that we will make mistakes but I think we should aim not to make them on a scale and with frightening regularity. If it were to happen, the solutions isn’t to create a bunch of apologetic error messages but to fix the business.

Disclaimer—at honestbee we are not yet free of “sorry error and info messages” but I’ve made it one of my goals for Q1 2017 to free us of negative content that doesn’t do anything for our users but slightly worsen their mood.

honestbee design

Stories from honestbee’s experience design team.

Liva

Written by

Liva

UX Writer and a fan of inbound marketing and Agatha Christie 🖤 https://sg.linkedin.com/in/livapaudere Twitter @Paudere

honestbee design

Stories from honestbee’s experience design team.

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