« XAML Fun | Main | Firefox ... More useless errors »

Another useless Error Dialog

Outlook 2003 (and older versions) has some wonderfully annoying errors that display occasionally (likely caused by bugs in various components). Many of them seem to happen when using the built-in Hotmail HTTP support.

Here’s one that I just had happen:

The messaging interface has returned an unknown error. If the problem persists, restart Outlook.

“The messaging interface has returned an unknown error. If the problem persists, restart Outlook.”

Let’s walk-through the typical user experience leading up to this event:

User: I wonder if any one sent me any e-mail today? I’ll just click down here …

Software: [BLING!]

User: Uh?

Software: [OK?!]

User: Uh?

Software: [OK?!]

User: A messaging whats-it? What problem? Restart? I’m in the middle of writing some e-mail!

Software: [OK?!]

User: Fine. OK this %^#@!*& Outlook! [CLICK!]

User: I’ll just try that aga…

Software: [BLING!]

User: Arrgh!

Clearly, the user wasn’t at fault here, yet the software suggests that the user must take some unknown action to try to resolve the error, or restart the application, hoping that things might get better. This is not the ideal experience. Some software developer likely thought this error was infrequent so the decision was to not worry about the messaging or end-user experience if it should occur.

Here are a handful of ways that this could have been handled that would have been better:

  • Try to internally restart/reload the necessary components rather than asking the user to restart the entire application. In this case, the Hotmail subsystem needs to be reloaded. Only after a complete restart of the likely broken subsystem should the user be potentially be alerted that there’s an error of unknown importance….
  • Present the user with some options: Restart Outlook. Report Error. Help. Microsoft support web site (which points to a page describing the error).
  • Explain why this is such a serious problem that warranted interrupting the user with a modal dialog and displaying the dreaded red X. What does it mean to the user? What might they still be able to do? Did they loose work they’ve done? Is Outlook unstable?
  • Reword it to seem directed at average computer users, not technical people. There is no “Restart” button in Outlook last time I checked for example. If you expect the user to read the text, make it worth their time. Respect their time.

In the end, I restarted Outlook and everything worked fine again. Phhpt.



While Microsoft does have some "useless" error messages -- the example you used actually WAS correct!

The dialog box actually told you to restart! And finally "in the end" when you DID restart Outlook -- "everything worked fine again".

Doesn't restarting Outlook sounds like something an "average" user could do?

Blake -- thanks for commenting.

How was the error that occured useful to the end user? That was my entire point. If restarting was a great option, include it on the dialog as an option. Software end user experience isn't given enough importance. My point is that this doesn't help the user. It's making the end user take an action to resolve a problem that they very likely didn't cause. I certainly knowingly didn't do anything that would cause that error. If it was my product, I'd be worried the user might switch to another product if they saw that message.

Restarting didn't help. That's how I found this page. I'm googling the error now in an attempt to fix...

(yes, I restarted Outlook, then rebooted, then reinstalled... Wheeeeee)

Yeah, and the recommendation to restart is a crock of ... I restarted this in both Outlook 98 and 2003, also ran scanpst.exe, all with out success!!

Depending on the type of account, anyone experiencing this problem, even after a restart may want to consider deleting and recreating the offending account. That *may* help.

Help support my web site by searching and buying through Amazon.com (in assocation with Amazon.com).