What constitutes a good error message to the user?

Today, will go down in my professional history as quite possibly the lowest I would ever think of a software developer. I’ve carefully avoided the term “fellow coder”, speaking of a IT industry sticking by fellow IT people, but not today.

I presently support an existing production system, some 1000+ users that’s been in place around 3 years in which I’ve had no prior involvement until recently. Integration with other external parties within the system have provided an esclation in errors being reported in this external communication, and lack of adequate feedback to the user is another topic. Email is the means of reporting administratively of user errors, again another topic of issue. Within these emails, which are almost impossible to manage due to the limited internal GUI only toolset and lack of access to actual email account files to automate scripting (yet another topic? Do you see a trend here), is some relevent information regarding the transaction, and then most importantly the error message. The thing I need to investigate the problem.

The line reads (removing some stuff):

Error Code: 234567892

Ok, well a little cryptic, but surely you can work out from the external system what this means. Investigation of some more errors, in the mail GUI product, yet another series of open windows (you can’t view messages like a regular mail client with a summary list and a detail panel), provides for a trend in the error messages:

Error Code: 1235492567
Error Code: -434783134
Error Code: 34345199

The trend being there is none. Of course today by mid morning the email error count is into the hundreds, and I’m none the wiser. Well time to closely investigate the code management (as I’ve already contacted the external party, and asked if I can provide some error codes to receive greater information).

The following constitutes the two lines of code taken in the determination of the error messages I’ve shown so far. Note, this code takes the external system response, and then “attempts to determine usefull error content for presentation back to the user”.

errorNo = new Random().nextInt();
error = “Error Code: ” + errorNo;

Now while everybody laughed out loud, including fellow developers, DBA, IT manager, the Business Owners and Users (which can’t read code but could understand the first of these two lines I highlighted), and yes it really was funny in context with a bigger picture, but really it wasn’t funny at all. Some things make my blood boil, and this was one of them. With all the time lost between multitudes of people, users, call centre etc, I’d never felt a stronger conviction to hunt down the developer that wrote this.

The end of the story is after even trolling old CVS repository entries I was unable to piece sufficient information to determine the author. Most likely done pre version control, and then that trail leads to only a few names I’ve heard mentioned before.

I’d like to see somebody top that one!


  1. says

    That is pretty hard to top. Who in their right mind would do such a thing? The only thing I can think is they were trying to play a joke, or be malicous.

  2. toomuchphp says

    The programmer probably never got around to the “TODO: replace with meaningful error codes” before he moved on.

    There is a support group for professionals who have to deal with these issues regularly: http://thedailywtf.com