How to design for error? Discover how to develop a site or an application by making life easier for your users.

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How to design for error? This is a very important question, but one that few websites or applications really take into account.

Humans are not immune to making mistakes. In fact, to be wrong is to be human. Systems must therefore take into account the sources of error. There must be a feedback mechanism that allows the user to have information about the series of actions inside the system. Whenever an error has occurred, the feedback should be concise and actionable.

I don’t know what I did. It opened a bunch of pop-ups and crashed the program. I never want to use it again; it’s frustrating.

So before we dive deeper and find out how to develop or design for error, it’s important to define some points. What do we mean when we talk about error, what exactly is an error? Another important point, what factors contribute to errors? This question comes down to wondering what drives users to make mistakes.

What is an error?

Mistakes can be divided into two broad categories: (1) errors and (2) blunders.

The division occurs at the level of intention: a person manifests an intention to ‘to act.

If the intent is not appropriate, it is an error. If the action is not what was expected, it is clumsiness.

D. Norman & C. Lewis, 1995, p. 686–697

Furthermore, cognitive (mistakes) and non-cognitive (blunders) errors can be categorized. Mistakes are mistakes in choosing a goal or specifying a method to achieve a goal, while blunders are the result of failure to implement a planned method for some action.< /p>

In design, the error can relate to actions both in reference to the user and to the product: the action plan that generates unexpected results. On the user side, errors can arise as a result of cognitive and non-cognitive modes of action. We are interested in the end user and how the system should react to the wrong actions of the end user.

What are the contributing factors to errors?

Usually, the contributing factors that result in an error event are not without contingent cause. In other words, there is an accumulation of contributing factors that lead to the occurrence of an error. Moreover, it is usually not process issues but human factors that lead to errors. We want to segment these factors on the user side to drive user-centric product design.

There are two dimensions we can consider for events that cause errors on the user side. the user.

  • Cognitive threshold: this relates to the amount of information and the decision-making process presented. Extremes cause cognitive overload that can be confusing, frustrating, and difficult for users to maneuver their tasks.
  • Sensory-motor threshold: it relates to perceptual signal stimulants and the sphere of possibilities an action, preceded by a motor, can take place (for example the character string is preceded by the act of typing ). Extremes can cause sensory overload that occurs when we are faced with misleading perceptual cues such as the fatness of an unnecessarily made font.

Complicated systems require simplification and organization of content to more effectively communicate a series of actions performed by the user. Ignoring erroneous events in such systems is a recipe for disaster.

Error messages are irritating. The consequences of human error range from minor inconvenience to lost productivity. It is for this reason that it is important to design for error, and to account for potential confusion. Therefore, the interfaces through which the system is designed should be kept to a minimum, because one should not only assume the ideal, but also the error cases and their effects on the system.

In programming, we have this notion of error handling methods that briefly incorporate the principle of autonomy of action and feedback in some way that can mitigate error propagation in the system. Similarly, the principles that govern program design logic also apply to other areas.

Suppose you are about to make a transaction with your colleague from another country. You are in Laos while your friend is in the United States. The exchange rate between one US dollar and one Lao kip is $1.00: ₭9,009.04. Suppose you entered the numbers in the wrong field; instead of Lao Kip, you entered US dollars. Imagine how problematic this could be if the transaction took place without clear feedback from the system.

Some systems compound the problem by making it easy to make mistakes but difficult or impossible to discover or recover from. -this. First, we need to understand the capabilities and limitations of our users. Our systems should also be responsible for blunders and errors. The product novice is prone to mistakes – instructions should not be ambiguous and overly detailed – while experts are prone to blunders – provide afeedback mechanism to mitigate the effects of errors.

How to design for the error? Attention, think of your users

In order to design for error, cognitive psychologist Donald Norman provided the following key points:

  • Understanding the causes errors and develop to minimize these causes.
  • Do sensitivity checks. Does the action pass the “common sense” test? Is there an anomaly in the pattern of behavior performed in such a task?
  • Allow to reverse actions – to “undo” them – or make more hard to do what can’t be reversed.
  • Help users find errors that occur more easily and fix them more easily.
  • Don’t treat the action as a mistake. It’s better to try to help the person complete the action correctly. Think of the action as an approximation of what is desired.

Report Errors

System designers should follow the following principles when attempting to inform the user that an error has occurred.

  1. The error message should be easy to notice and understand.
  2. The field(s) in error should be easy to locate.
  3. Users should not have to memorize instructions to correct the error.


  • Baecker , RM (ed.). (2014). Readings in Human-Computer Interaction: Around the Year 2000. Elsevier.
  • Norman, D. (2013). The Everyday Design: Revised and Expanded Edition.
  • AIGA San Francisco (2017). Error design. Consulted at:
  • Judge Cooke, McMahon CA, North MR (2003) Sources of Error in the design process. In: Gogu G., Coutellier D., Chedmail P., Ray P. (eds) Recent advances in integrated design and manufacturing in mechanical engineering. Springer, Dordrecht.
  • Krause, R. (2019). How to report errors in forms: 10 design guidelines.

Freely translated from the article Designing for error – Icon: Head by Komkrit Noenpoempisut from the Noun Project

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